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The Two Faces of Lion

The most frequent question I’ve been asked since Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference keynote on Monday is whether Mac OS X 10.7 Lion is “boring.” That’s a fair question. The last real overhaul of features that significantly affected the user experience of Mac OS X came with 10.5 Leopard, which tweaked the interface and improved a number of applications and system elements that we interact with all the time, such as the Finder. In contrast, Apple billed 10.6 Snow Leopard as containing largely under-the-hood changes meant to improve performance and provide a more coherent foundation for future development. (Personally, I never felt that Snow Leopard was a strong release, since I experienced many problems with the early revisions, and I still have more inexplicable system failures requiring reboot than I saw with Leopard or 10.4 Tiger.)

But Lion is packed full of user-level gizmos, doodads, and new ways of working. In testing Lion, I’ve found that Apple even removed things of limited value that have persisted for years in Mac OS X. (We’ll discuss which things, specifically, after it’s released.)

However, most of these new features are aimed at users who may have never used a Mac before, or even a computer, or who have always had a difficult relationship with traditional operating systems. iOS has succeeded in attracting those who don’t want a computer because the iPhone or iPad doesn’t present them with the same difficulties — or the same overabundance of choices — as a desktop operating system.

When you power up an iPad, you swipe to unlock the screen, and you see a display full of things you can do. They’re apps, but they’re also usually highly specific actions, since most apps do just one thing, and Apple has discouraged portmanteau programs full of widgets. Power up a Mac or Windows system, and there’s all this stuff, and all the possible ways of interacting with it can be overwhelming. As my mother-in-law sometimes relates to me, “I’m trying to move the thing into the other thing, but nothing happens.”

The classic desktop interface, with its hoary analogies to the 1950s office desktop, with documents filed away in folders, complete with a trash can, made more sense than the Unix command-line interface for millions of people, just as the command line itself was a huge step forward from earlier methods of interacting with computers (punch cards? switches? wires?). And for those who either came of age during the 1980s or whose minds naturally fit with the desktop metaphor, it works well, despite requiring an odd mental combination of the abstract and the concrete.

But it is now clear that the desktop interface doesn’t work for everyone, no matter how refined it has become over the last three decades of mass-market availability. That’s not a comment on intelligence. My mother-in-law is brilliant, and spent decades working in a professional field. She has also used a Mac for over 20 years. However, it still makes no sense to her.

Clearly, many of us have internalized the operating system space to the point where these virtual tools have almost become extensions of our minds. But many other people — perhaps most people — view the desktop interface as containing a bewildering array of unrelated objects lacking concreteness and predictable properties, such that even basic usage requires rote memorization and regurgitation of a series of steps. How many people do you know who have a little notebook full of such recipes?

And that’s where Apple is aiming iOS, at those people for whom the desktop metaphor has never made sense, and for whom the vast array of possible locations, objects, actions, and results is nothing short of baffling. We all know people in this category. To be clear, it’s not that iOS is “easier” to use; it’s that it replaces metaphor with direct manipulation, and drastically reduces that set of locations, actions, objects, and results. And while it’s impossible to tie the success of the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad to any one factor, there’s no question that the focused simplicity of iOS has helped.

Back to Lion. Lion has plenty of elements aimed at us old-timers, to be sure. AirDrop addresses the problem of needing to move files between people without first having to set up a network. It’s a great idea, and borrows liberally from the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi Direct initiative which, someday, will work with all Wi-Fi–certified devices. Also welcome for many long-time Mac users will be the visual and conversation-based enhancements to Apple Mail, a more capable Preview that will read Office and iWork documents, per-user screen sharing, and FileVault 2’s full-disk encryption.

A number of Lion’s other new features may require a little getting used to, but will likely be appreciated by most existing Mac users once they have widespread adoption. Auto Save and Versions, for instance, will require more mental effort at first, as we juggle which apps require manual saving and which don’t. But once nearly all programs are auto-saving our drafts and filing away hourly versions of work in progress, we could experience both an improvement in efficiency and less lost work. I know I’ll love Resume, which not only starts a program back where you left off with all the same open documents, but ensures that the entire system starts up in exactly the state it was in before you rebooted or (it will still happen) it crashed.

And then there are a few features, like Launchpad, that are easily ignored. It’s a launcher, and launching applications on the Mac is not a problem that many long-standing Mac users have. We click icons in the Dock, double-click application or document icons in the Finder, or use utilities like LaunchBar to launch via the keyboard.

So while I’m mildly excited about some of these features, it seems clear that they’re not overwhelming. For many long-time Mac users, the most important parts of Lion are the kind of small refinements we saw in Snow Leopard. It’s nowhere near as significant a change as the coming iOS 5 release, in which Apple has replaced or overhauled many components and technologies that either lacked the spark of brilliance (the Camera and Messages apps) or caused constant user consternation (reliance on iTunes, notifications).

But that’s us. The people for whom Lion will be most interesting are not those of you reading this article. When Lion ships, sit down a new user or an old one who always suffers, and show them how to fire up Launchpad. Teach them a few gestures. Show them Mission Control for when they’ve misplaced a window. Tell them they don’t need to save except the first time (we imagine Apple is working on that first save, too). Explain how their changes and backups are automatically being saved to disk. Set up Time Machine to take care of backups and don’t worry if they forget to plug in the external hard drive regularly, since it’s still working.

It’s not so much that Lion borrows from iOS. It’s rather that Apple has figured out the quintessence of what makes iOS eminently approachable for people for whom the classic desktop interface will never work. Which is most people. It’s possible that Lion could transform the computing experience for the average non-techie in the same way iOS killed the “only a business user could love” interfaces of most smartphones. It may even be possible that Lion is merely a step in that direction, and that we’ll be seeing a version of OS X — without the Mac prefix — evolving even further in the direction that iOS is pointing.

As with all predictions of the future, we’ll have to see. I like the idea that I can introduce new users to Lion without having to make excuses for all the confusing interface conventions of a desktop operating system, and I like that they will be able to transfer many of the skills they may have acquired in becoming familiar with iOS. But as a power user whose livelihood depends on my ability to squeeze every last bit of productivity from my Mac, it’s also comforting to know that I can just avoid all the newbie bits that won’t do anything to make me more efficient.


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Comments about The Two Faces of Lion
(Comments are closed.)

uhuznaa  2011-06-09 14:28
What grates me the most is that Apple adds another way to launch apps instead of cutting some slack. From the Dock, from the Finder or Desktop, with Spotlight, now Launchpad -- how many totally different ways to launch an app do we need? What about some thoughtful redesign and integration?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-09 14:37
I'm really not bothered by this because different people have very different preferences, and even the same person may use different methods in different situations.

I launch my most-used apps with F-keys via Keyboard Maestro, most other apps via LaunchBar, a few from the Dock, and a very few by double-clicking in the Applications folder. I have no plan to use Launchpad at all, since I have way too many applications, but I could see it being a nice step up from the Dock (where you wouldn't want to put all your apps) for some users.
Mac'em X  2011-06-13 17:30
What Apple's done IS thoughtful redesign.

All a beginner needs to know is Launchpad. Works just like the iPad. No need for apps in the doc, or double-clicking in the Finder.

The rest of us, of course, can choose any or all of those methods as we like. The beginner just has to learn one dead-simple method, and never need bother with others. This is very good. Cheer up!
Sharon Zardetto  2011-06-09 14:39
Well, if I were using Lion already and had a discussion with my husband about it last night and could talk about that conversation, I'd say that I said I almost feel sorry for newcomers because there are so many different ways to do basic things that it's probably more confusing than helpful. Experienced users like lots of options and can switch among them depending on circumstances. Newbies - more confusion. Get used to Launchpad, and what happens when you wind up on the Desktop? Creating a Space is easy to do by accident, and so on.
At least when you're in a diner with a multi-page menu, you can just close it and ask the waiter if they have potato pancakes instead of having to peruse all the offerings...
Ed Cormany  2011-06-09 15:08
excellent (p)review! i too am glad that the "newbie bits" can be avoided, although i see a general trend in Apple pushing the massive grid of icons as a good UI (dock grids, iOS home screens, and now Launchpad and documents in iWork for iOS.) it doesn't really work for me, but maybe that's just how my brain works, or maybe it's that it gives me flashbacks to At Ease *shudder*.

Resume scares me a bit, but just because it will make me rethink my workflow. i suspect cmd-opt-W and i will become close friends. i also hope there's a clean and easy way to do a proper restart: give me just the Finder, please. i guess if i had 8 or 16GB of RAM i might not care, but 4 on my MBP is starting to feel cramped and requires good management to keep things running happily.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-09 15:26
"Resume" fortunately comes with "Clean Start" which will let you start up without memories of old boots.
Ed Cormany  2011-06-09 15:33
excellent! i just got some of my other minor questions (things that didn't make the cut for the 2-hour keynote) answered by this Macworld article: things that made me happy: configurable gestures, scroll bar hiding, and swipe scroll direction. although that'll be fun when half your friends and family have scrolling set one way and half the other and you sit down at their Mac and try to do anything... x_x
Tonya Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-10 08:14
I can easily imagine a lot of cognitive dissonance when switching quickly among Lion and pre-Lion systems if the mouse scroll direction is different between the two systems. I expect people will also quickly get used to reversing their scroll direction if it doesn't work on the first try, just as some of us already have when bouncing between iOS and Mac OS.

The big question will be if less aware users, who are used to the older-style scrolling will start using Lion and think that scrolling isn't working at all, not realizing that they have to do it upside down from what they are used to. For example, as someone who is about to publish ebooks about using Lion, I am wondering how many new readers will open their ebook in Preview for the first time and get stuck on scrolling to page 2.
Steve Craddock  2011-06-09 15:51
Another great article on Tidbits! All those different ways of achieving simple processes on the desktop Mac are mind-numbingly confusing, not empowering. Please, Apple, learn from the iPad software, and just offer one simple pathway for tasks.
David Okun  2011-06-09 22:50
Literally, a beautifully written article. Glen, you take great care to address the concerns of power users and those familiar with the Mac when you describe the upcoming release of Lion. I found myself nodding along to your anecdote about family and friends with a notebook of computer directions. Instead of perpetuating a "holier than thou" attitude with respect to "power users" v. ordinary Mac users who just think it's a pretty computer, you effetively addressed the concens from each constituency. Thank you for the clear, informative and entertaining post.
Turner Bain  2011-06-10 09:38
Great article. Comments enlightening. I had a discussion with two people on the bus today, one of whom thought that it was just fantastical that he could take a picture with his cell phone and send it via email to his grandchildren. The other person has a desktop computer, which is not connected to the internet. She uses it to compose and construct cards with text and photos to send via U.S. mail to her many grandchildren. I did not tell her what she is not missing without Facebook. Grandpa said that he makes regular trips to the Verizon store for instructions because there is no literate explanation available from the provider. Grandmom said that dealing with the internet is too much folderol to deal with. I have always used .mac, which also has selectively challenged autistics writing the literary interface. Operating a computer sometimes resembles using a satellite control in the dark. I am glad the e-crowd did not design cars or airplanes. I hope Lion will be better.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-10 09:44
Microsoft's founders at one point used to claim they had written the software that controlled most of the elevators in the country – fortunately, a lie. Imagine all the crashes!
I've actually been IN an elevator that ran Windows software, which crashed. Luckily, the software only controlled the in-elevator advertising. (Marriott hotel in San Francisco, Macworld Expo 2010)
Maurice  2011-06-11 17:15
"But as a power user whose livelihood depends on my ability to squeeze every last bit of productivity from my Mac, it’s also comforting to know that I can just avoid all the newbie bits that won’t do anything to make me more efficient."

Ah, but for how long? Apple moves to simplification, no file sytem; but what if you want to open a file from one application in another? This is not always possible in IOS, and, if we're unlucky, not possible in a future version of Mac OS X...
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-11 17:49
Interesting example. Over time, iOS has gotten ever better at allowing me to open files of varying types from any app.
Patrick McClure  2011-06-14 02:50
Well done, Glenn!

From over 30 years of supporting family and friends,I immediately recognised the brilliant user type you mentioned, but there are also many not-so-brilliant users who have the same problem set. I think the most common trait they share is impatience, seemingly bred from the belief--where did they get it?--that a computer by definition should be both perfect and instantaneous. Perhaps they were led to believe that computers are only adding machines.

iOS devices are a little more perfect but certainly slower at this point than desktop metaphor computes. How do your "impatient" friends like them? Generally, mine don't seem to like them, or any other smart phone for that matter; they tend to like old Blackberries or even plain old dumb phones.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-26 15:35
I would disagree with you on this (as I write in the article). I don't believe it's a matter of intelligence — for many people. There are folks whose bulb doesn't glow as brightly as others, and are bloody minded about not figuring out the right way to do things. When I was younger, I thought that was most people who didn't get computers. With age, I've found a lot of smart people for whom the way a computer works simply doesn't match up with how their brain works, no matter how hard they try.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-26 16:07
I've observed another situation, which I think occurs quite often, too: Many people were taught how to accomplish specific tasks on a computer (use this spreadsheet; enter this info into a database; check email) without learning any of the foundation knowledge. They didn't need to: There was always an IT department or relative who could deal with it.

In that case, it's not a matter of intelligence at all, but of needing specific focus to accomplish a particular task. We're a relatively rare breed of crazy who installs software and then starts poking through the preferences to see what else it can do. :)
Bertrand Morin  2011-06-14 09:32
Intelligence versus Time; my advisor at Stanford (in a seminar on intelligence and problem-solving) used to say (I paraphrase…) : «Given enough time, we could with a very high probability teach almost anything to anyone.»

For one, I do believe this is a fairly adequate rationale; I am not interested in thinking and acting like a machine (namely, the environment of a computer), just the opposite.

This is why the new (false?) paradigm that some are trying to impose on us bothers me. At 68+, time becomes a very important vector, more than the complexity of the brain inrelation to the machine.

Give and offer persons alternatives and choices.

À bon entendeur, salut.

Bertrand A. Morin
Gary Coyne  2011-06-14 15:22
Everything I've seen about Launchpad means that I've no reason to stop using Overflow. For those who have many many apps, it's still the best option I've seen. And, if you do not have many apps, the customization is still better than Launchpad. (And no, I do not work for the Overflow folks.)
kori42  2011-07-25 21:42
Will Lion be the last release of OS 10? Will it be replaced by IOS?
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-25 22:09
No, there's no imminent switch to iOS. I think the two will become more similar, but won't merge any time soon.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-26 06:34
I agree with Jeff - I think we may even see an intermediate Mac that is limited to the Mac App Store and has many few user-accessible options at some point in the future, but I can't see Mac OS X going away. If nothing else, it's necessary for developers - you need it to write both Mac and iOS software.