Mac App Store Upgrade: Will OS X Lion be Apple's Vista?

The first thing that came to mind when I heard that Apple may seed OS X 10.7 Lion via the Mac App Store to all users running Snow Leopard: Windows Vista.

The new Apple OS is due out this summer, but the idea of upgrading purely through a digital download does not appeal to me and I think it spells trouble for Apple. Just as Windows users found going from XP to Vista, an upgrade to Lion may be more of a hassle than it's worth.

Sure, developers have been grabbing Lion on the Mac App Store for months now. But there's a big difference between allowing a small group of technically proficient people to do this and opening the process up to the larger public.

Regardless of how solid Apple's download process might be, sometimes you want to use a physical disc to install software. In my opinion, a major operating system upgrade qualifies as one of those times. Here's why.

Smells Like Vista

Some people prefer to wipe their hard drives and do a fresh install instead of dealing with potential software conflicts and other pitfalls during an OS upgrade. But if you have to reinstall Snow Leopard first and then download Lion, the fresh install process becomes a real pain.

Just like Windows users who wanted to wipe their hard drives before upgrading to Vista from XP, it sounds like OS X Lion users will end up tied to a double OS installation.

Installs Fail

Now, I admit, I have upgraded many computers running versions of Windows, OS X, and Linux, and I have never run into a problem. Perhaps your experience is the same, but I bet you know someone who has had an OS installation nightmare.

For that reason alone, the idea of upgrading to OS X without a physical disc makes me queasy. If your Internet connection fails or the power goes out in the middle of your installation, it's best to have the new OS on a DVD or USB stick so that you can reboot and try to install again. If not, I guess it's back to the Snow Leopard disc for you and then another run at Lion.

Refresh Yourself

Believe it or not, even on a Mac you may find you want to wipe your hard drive and do a fresh install of OS X as your machine ages. You may find simply find that a fresh install would do it some good.

Or what if you decide to run Windows in a Boot Camp partition after you've had Lion going for a year or two? Chances are to make room for Windows you'll have to either defrag your hard drive (good luck with that on a Mac), or tinker with Disk Utility, or take the easy way out and just reinstall OS X. Without a Lion disc that probably means a double OS installation for you.

Boot Camp

If you want to run Windows using Boot Camp you need specific drivers from Apple before Microsoft's OS will work properly on a Mac. Most of the time you get those drivers through your OS X installation disc, although you can also get them from Apple as a download via Boot Camp Assistant.

But if you have problems downloading Apple's Windows drivers -- as I did when I tested the system this morning -- I guess you're out of luck, unless you have an OS X installation disc.

Look to Linux

If Apple really does seed OS X Lion as a download in the Mac App Store, I hope the company will offer the capability to burn a disc image the way Linux distributions do such as Ubuntu and openSUSE. That way you get the best of both worlds: an OS X Lion download and a physical copy of the OS as a safeguard.

The downside to that approach is you'll have to use Disk Utility to burn your disc, which might scare off the average user. Then again, Apple could create a simple wizard that burns the disc for you and all you have to do is insert the blank storage media when prompted. Maybe that's not as painless as a simple download, but a major OS X upgrade via the Mac App Store could give Apple the lion's share of tech headaches this summer.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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