Apple's Lion: A Marriage of IOS and OS X

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Multi-touch gestures

Apple believes that users don't want to interact with their desktop and notebook computers via a touch-screen as they do an iPhone. It's not ergonomic, Jobs said, and most desktop applications are simply not built for that kind of input.

Instead, the company is focusing on the multi-touch interfaces it already makes for Macs: the larger glass trackpad in MacBooks, the year-old Magic Mouse that blends a touch interface with a traditional computer mouse, and the more recent Magic Trackpad. I think this makes a lot of sense; Apple's proven that it can incorporate multi-touch effectively using these types of devices.

My concern is that multi-touch gestures (as well as some of the other interface changes planned for Lion, which I'll get to shortly) may seem overly complicated to new Mac users. If the new users come with experience using an iPhone or iPad, they shouldn't have problems, but I'm worried about less tech-savvy individuals who buy a Mac thinking it's just easier than Windows (and who can blame them, given that this has been Apple's marketing stance for some time now?). Admittedly, Apple's retail stores are great at user education and may be able to absorb some of the challenge.

I'm also concerned how multi-touch gestures will play out with users who prefer non-Apple input devices, as well as for those who use older MacBooks that don't include the current large multi-touch trackpad. (Apple continued to sell such notebooks into 2009.) If significant multi-touch features in Lion won't be supported on these systems, it could certainly add fuel to the fire for those who complain that Apple creates closed ecosystems that force upgrades.

The Mac App Store

Like the existing App Store for iOS devices, Apple's announced Mac App Store will offer one-click downloads and installation, and licensing will apply to all Macs that a user owns (though I can't help but wonder if there will be a limit). Developers whose software is sold through the Mac App Store will receive the same 70/30 revenue split as with the iOS App Store. Although touted as a feature of Lion, Apple has promised that the Mac App Store will launch within 90 days.

It isn't surprising that Apple would choose to introduce the App Store concept for Mac software. The model has done well for Apple, and the company borrowed from it in designing its Safari Extensions Gallery. Apple has also maintained a library of information about Mac software on its Web site for years now.

This model makes sense for end users too because it simplifies the purchase and installation process: No waiting for a store to open or a package to be delivered, and no relying on installation media or having to delete .DMG files (the most common download format for Mac software) after installation. It also makes it a lot easier to maintain updates.

The Mac App Store may also help smaller developers get noticed. It's hard not to assume Apple has been planning the Mac App Store for quite some time and that it was part of the reason for dropping the price on the Mac developer program membership.

On the plus side, the Mac App Store will not be the only option for finding and purchasing Mac software. I think this was one of the biggest concerns that Mac users and developers might have had over the concept. Downloads from the Web and traditional installation media will remain supported. From the demo today, it looks as if both iPad-style full-screen apps as well as more traditional applications will be supported.

There are, however, a couple of major concerns that I have about introducing this model:

Will users be forced to upgrade or be able to downgrade applications? This is a problem with the iOS App Store. Once an update is downloaded/installed, it can't be reverted to an earlier release, as you can if you have the install media or original installer files of a desktop application. Several iOS app updates have introduced bugs or performance problems; when this occurs, there's no option but to wait for a developer to fix it. With the more complex environment of full-fledged computers with specific configurations and peripherals, testing for across-the-board compatibility would be largely impossible.

What about volume and site licensing? The App Store approach is great for home users, but I can't see it playing out well in schools or businesses where a base configuration and set of apps needs to be made available to a large number of computers. This is already a challenge when deploying iPhones and iPads in bulk, and has been since the App Store launched over two years ago. While iOS 4 addressed many enterprise concerns, it left a gaping hole in terms of mass deployment of apps. Apple could resolve this challenge by including an app management and license server feature in Lion Server.

Auto-save and auto-resume

I like the concept of Apple building the ability to auto-save files into Lion so that every developer can easily include it in their applications -- so long as it doesn't lead to file system challenges like those on iOS devices (where there is no central access to a file system) and it doesn't mean that traditional Open and Save dialogs and methods are going away (which I doubt). Let's face it; we've all lost work because we forgot to hit Save often enough, so this is a big plus.

It would be nice to see this feature tied into some form of revision history. I'm thinking particularly about the ability of Google Docs and Dropbox to find previous versions of a file if you decide you don't want to keep the changes that you (or someone else) made to it. Given that this feature exists in a somewhat limited form with Apple's Time Machine, I don't see it being a big challenge to create, and it is a natural extension of the auto-save concept.

Auto-resume is something I'm less enthusiastic about. It works well for mobile devices that display only one application at a time because you have to switch in and out of apps frequently. I'm not sure I want or need that in my desktop apps. Most of the time when I launch Word, for example, I want to start a new document rather than automatically seeing the last document I had open; otherwise I'd have double-clicked the document I wanted. So I'm hoping this will be an optional feature that users can enable or disable as whole or, better yet, on an app-specific basis.

Launchpad and app home screens

I wish I was excited by the demo of Launchpad, a feature that displays all installed applications as an overlay on the desktop similar to the iOS home screen, but I wasn't. The idea is to have all applications (presumably from the Mac App Store as well as other sources) available with one click -- and perhaps some swiping to see more app screens if they can't all fit onscreen at once. (You can get a similar effect by dragging your Mac's Applications folder into the Dock as I've done on each of my Macs.)

The concept isn't a bad one, but it's too easy to go from a good idea to a bad experience with it.

Any longtime Mac user might remember that Apple has tried this concept a few times over the years, first in managed workgroup and multi-user products such as At Ease and Mac Manager, and as an option in classic MacOS releases. In some cases, the MacOS Finder was completely replaced by a button-style view of installed or allowed applications. In others, a button view was introduced as an alternative. Perhaps the most commonly known and best-designed implementation was the Launcher. It should be telling that none of these solutions exists today.

Launchpad does seem an improvement over past attempts at streamlining and access restriction. (I imagine Apple will integrate it with parental controls and client management via Mac OS X Server and/or third-party Active Directory solutions.) But it could be just as confusing to some users as having to locate applications in the Applications folder and its subfolders.

I'm particularly put off by the idea of iOS-style folders in Launchpad. This seems to increase the potential for confusion and onscreen clutter, particularly if more traditional ways of launching applications remain: drilling down through folders, opening a specific document, keeping applications in the Dock and using Stacks in the Dock to browse through your Applications folder or other folders -- not to mention applications stored on removable media such as external hard drives, DVDs and network shares. Adding to all of those options, Launchpad with its various screens of apps and iOS-style folders seems to make application management more complex by the sheer number of choices rather than simplifying the process.

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