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

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Apple's Back to the Mac event yesterday was preceded by plenty of speculation. Some of it was dead on -- such as predictions of revamped MacBook Air models -- while some of it missed the mark a bit: Apple didn't unveil a touch-screen iMac (in fact, CEO Steve Jobs referred to the idea as "ergonomically horrible") and, while FaceTime is coming to the Mac, it is as a standalone application, not as part of iChat.

Without a doubt, the biggest news was the preview of the next version of Mac OS X, known as Lion (which leaves very few big cats left for future releases). There has been speculation for months that Apple might begin bundling iOS features into the Mac; some even suggested that Apple would replace Mac OS X with iOS. While the latter certainly didn't happen, we learned yesterday that Lion will incorporate some key iOS functionality, for better or worse.

Let's take a look at the major themes and announcements first, then dig into what Lion may mean for Mac users going forward. Finally, we'll close with some thoughts on iLife '11, which also made its debut yesterday.

The Mac is still important to Apple

With all the recent focus on the iPad, iPhone 4, fourth-generation iPod touch and Apple TV, the Mac has started to seem like Apple's redheaded stepchild. However, Apple COO Tim Cook made it very clear that the Mac is still a key part of Apple's business, having accounted for a third of Apple's revenue in the company's recently closed fiscal year. There are nearly 50 million Mac users worldwide, he said, and Mac sales are three times as large as they were just five years ago -- largely owing to Apple's retail stores.

Cook also highlighted that there are currently 600,000 registered Mac developers and that the company is adding an average of 30,000 developers each month. I can't help but think that this incredible upswing in registered developers is related to Apple's decision to reduce the individual membership in its Mac developer program (which comes with a slate of training, documentation and resources for developers) from its previous $499/year price tag to just $99/year.

Clearly, despite the success of iOS and Apple's business as a music, movie/TV, and e-book reseller, the company still sees the Mac as a core part of its business.

FaceTime gets ready for its close-up

Many users have been hoping Apple would make FaceTime video calling available to a wider audience than just iPhone 4 and fourth-generation iPod touch owners. While most commentators surmised that Apple would build FaceTime into iChat, it turns out that FaceTime will be a separate application (for now, anyway). Given that most Macs include a built-in camera for video chat and taking photos, this is a natural way to extend FaceTime to a larger audience.

In beta now, FaceTime is available for download from Apple's site. It has potential both for keeping up with friends and family and for conducting virtual business meetings. It will be interesting to see if Apple keeps FaceTime limited to two-party calls or expands it to the multi-party calls that iChat supports.

It will also be interesting to see if Apple bundles FaceTime into the next generation of Mac OS X Server; current and previous releases include a free IM/voice/video chat feature based on the open source Jabber protocol dubbed iChat Server. As Snow Leopard Server and the Mac Mini server hardware provide a simple and very low-cost server solution for small business or workgroups in a larger organization, FaceTime could become a powerful selling point for the platform.

It's worth noting that despite Apple's attempt to push the FaceTime protocol as an open standard that could have compatible apps for Windows 7 and/or Android devices, FaceTime remains an Apple-only technology, while competing products such as Tango and Yahoo Messenger offer broader video calling capability: iOS to Android in the case of Tango and iOS to Android or desktops in the case of Yahoo Messenger.

An interesting side note is that Apple's slides and details about the new MacBook Air refer to the built-in camera as a FaceTime camera instead of the iSight moniker that Apple has used up to this point.

In Video: New MacBook Air Models Are Lighter, But Still Expensive

The new MacBook Airs

As expected, Apple introduced two new MacBook Air models that feature several weight-reduction design elements borrowed from the iPad. With 13.3-in. and 11.6-in. displays, both models weigh less than three pounds (2.9 and 2.3 pounds, respectively) and measure less than an inch thick (0.68 in. at their thickest point and 0.11 in. at the thinnest). Eschewing both optical drives and HDD drives, they use only SSD flash storage, which is built right onto the board rather than fitted into a hard drive slot.

Although there's no iPad-style touch screen, the new models do sport a full-size glass track pad (already found on other MacBook models) that supports multi-touch gestures (swiping with varying finger combinations, rotating content, pinch to zoom, etc.) as well as a full-size keyboard. They ship with 2GB of RAM, the Nvidia GeForce 320m graphics chipset and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor (1.4GHz in the 11.6-in. model and 1.86GHz in the 13.3-in. model).

Prices range from $999 for an 11.6-in. model with 64GB of storage to $1,599 for the 13.3-in. model with 256GB of storage.

Jobs has repeatedly said that Apple wouldn't launch a netbook, but the size, weight and battery life of the new Airs (Apple claims 7 hours for the 13.3-in. model and 5 hours for the 11.6-in.) will draw inevitable comparisons to netbooks. While the new Airs aren't likely to win any speed tests against other Mac notebooks (or indeed many PC laptops), their specs do put them ahead of mainstream netbooks when it comes to power and performance.

The 11.6-in. model in particular gives Apple an entry into the sub-notebook space at a much lower entry price than the previous generation of MacBook Airs. It will be interesting to see how these fare in the market compared to iPads.

Enter the Lion

The big news, of course, was Mac OS X 10.7, a.k.a. Lion. Slated for a release next summer, Apple's preview of its new desktop OS focused mostly on features borrowed from the company's iOS devices:

* More advanced use of multi-touch gestures

* A Mac App Store

* The ability for apps to auto-save work and auto-resume to their last-used point when relaunched

* Apps that operate in full-screen mode rather than in windows

* A feature called Launchpad with functionality similar to an iPad's home screen

* A feature called Mission Control that combines elements of Exposé, Dashboard, Spaces and full-screen apps

Judging from tweets sent during the event, I'm not the only one who had some misgivings when Jobs said that part of the meaning of "Back to the Mac" was bringing iOS components into Mac OS X. The rest of the demo left me feeling somewhat confident that Apple is doing this in a smart way, although I'll hold off any further endorsement until I can spend some serious time with these features.

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