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Apple Offers a Glimpse of Mac OS X Lion

Keeping entirely with the advertised “Back to the Mac” invitation that showed a lion peeking out from behind a brushed aluminum apple, Apple CEO Steve Jobs last week presented a preview of features we can expect to see in the next big cat—Mac OS X Lion. (Apple never used a version number, but we presume it will be 10.7.) Slated for “Summer 2011” (in the Northern Hemisphere), Mac OS X Lion takes its inspiration from the aspects of iOS that Apple has found both particularly successful and applicable to a desktop or laptop computer, including the App Store, multi-touch gestures, app home screens, full-screen apps, and more.

Mac App Store — With 7 billion downloads so far, the App Store has been a huge success. And now, as we joked in our April Fools article “Apple Plans App Store Shakeup with Franchises, Mac Applications” (1 April 2010), Apple will be creating an App Store exclusively for Mac applications. Although the Mac App Store will be integrated into Mac OS X Lion, we won’t have to wait until the middle of 2011 to see it—Jobs said Apple would be opening the Mac App Store within 90 days, and developers will be able to start submitting their apps next month. The Mac App Store will complement, not replace, the ability to install
programs by hand, whether free or commercial.

If you’ve seen the App Store app on the iPad, you’ve essentially seen the App Store application—Apple isn’t shoehorning it into iTunes. Buttons at the top include Featured, Top Charts, Categories, and Updates, and there’s a search field as well. Click a purchase button and you’ve bought the app; it jumps out of the App Store and onto your Dock, with the familiar iOS icon fill bar showing as it downloads. Installation is completely automatic, as are updates.

Free and paid apps will be available. While average prices will undoubtedly be higher than in the iOS App Store, the revenue split will be the same, with developers receiving 70 percent and Apple retaining 30 percent. Jobs said apps will be licensed for use on all your personal Macs; what that really means and how it will be enforced remains to be seen. Many Mac programs today are sold with explicit licensing terms to allow use by a single individual on multiple computers, or under a family or household license that allows software to be used on all the computers owned by people who cohabitate. Others, notably Microsoft’s and Adobe’s suites, use serial numbers with a central server check and local network limitations to restrict
usage. iOS apps can be installed on multiple devices registered to the same iTunes Store account, but apps are also allowed to use accounts and serial numbers to restrict usage; many GPS navigation programs, which can cost $30 to $80, lock down usage in that way.

Other questions abound. For instance, what about demo versions? The buzz on Twitter as Jobs announced the Mac App Store was immediately focused on the current inability of the iOS App Store to offer limited demo versions of paid apps for potential buyers to try out. This is a real concern for Mac programs, which can cost hundreds of dollars, and many of which currently offer trial modes or 30-day test periods. Apple could allow the Mac App Store to provide demo versions, of course, or developers could offer trial versions from their own Web sites, but that defeats the marketing potential of the Mac App Store.

Likewise, iOS app developers have been increasingly vocal about their inability to sell paid upgrades of apps. Some developers have worked around this by releasing subsequent versions as new apps, and requiring a new purchase for owners of previous releases. Apple will need to address both these issues.

To a lesser extent, developers are concerned about the revenue split. Mac software developers are used to paying 5 to 15 percent for payment processing, and may not immediately see (nor obtain) the value of the marketing channel that the Mac App Store provides. In the iOS App Store, marketing is essentially impossible. If your app is anointed as a staff pick, sales can go up. But iOS developers have no other channel to sell to device owners. Mac developers have existing channels and will need to evaluate the Mac App Store as a new method of reaching customers in exchange for the 30-percent transaction fee.

Multi-Touch Gestures — Interestingly, Jobs made a point of talking about a feature that Macintosh hardware won’t be gaining—touch-sensitive displays. He said that Apple had done extensive user testing and while vertical touch screens demo well, in real usage, they’re just too tiring to use for any amount of time. So while Mac OS X Lion will make increased use of gestures for basic functionality, the hardware for them will remain horizontal, in the form of MacBook trackpads, the Magic Mouse, and the Magic Trackpad. If you aren’t using one of those devices now, Lion may give you incentive to buy one.

App Home Screen — Although I’m not sure I agree with Jobs that the iOS home screen has been a huge win in iOS (I’m never quite happy with any organization I set up), Apple will be bringing the home screen concept to Mac OS X Lion via a feature called Launchpad. Invoked via a multi-touch gesture, Launchpad hides everything showing on your Desktop and displays a grid of apps.

Multiple pages are available, you can rearrange icons on each page, and you can drag icons on top of one another to create folders, just like in iOS 4. And, of course, you can click any icon to launch the associated app. (I believe it’s a single click, but we won’t know for certain until it ships.) Oh, and if you swipe to the right while showing the left-most home screen page, Launchpad displays your Dashboard widgets. Does anyone use Dashboard widgets?

Full-Screen Apps — On the small-screen iOS devices, every app takes over the entire screen, and while Jobs admitted that doesn’t make sense for every app on the Mac, it is true that some programs are more usable when viewed at full screen. That’s especially true of Apple’s iLife apps—iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand—which need to present a lot of data and controls at once. Some current Mac applications can operate in a full-screen mode, but it’s unusual, since there’s no standardized way in Mac OS X to return to the normal view.

With Mac OS X Lion, full-screen mode is now a standard feature. For apps that support it, the green zoom button in windows will cause an app not to zoom to the largest window size, but to fill the entire screen. In Apple’s demo, even the menu bar disappeared, and if that’s required by full-screen mode, developers will have to ensure that in-window controls are sufficient.

To switch to another app while using one in full-screen mode, you use another multi-touch gesture (or so it appeared in the demo). When you switch, the full-screen app remains running in what is essentially its own space (as in a Spaces space). Other gestures let you switch back to the full-screen app and move among other full-screen apps. The demo didn’t make clear how you make a particular app in full-screen mode switch back to windowed mode.

Mission Control — Now, you might be thinking that full-screen apps are encroaching a bit on Spaces’ territory, and you’d be right. But in fact, Apple has a number of technologies—Exposé, Dashboard, Spaces, and now full-screen apps—that all manage the screen in some way. Dealing with them all is becoming a bit confusing, so Apple will be introducing an umbrella technology called Mission Control to bring them all together.

Invoked by, you guessed it, another multi-touch gesture, Mission Control shows spaces and full-screen apps in an area at the top of the screen, a collection of Exposé windows that are collected together by app in the middle of the window, and the Dock at the bottom. In short, it shows you everything on your Mac at a glance.

I still feel that most of the problems Apple is trying to solve with these interface approaches disappear entirely if you have two displays, which is easy on all modern Macs. I find Spaces thoroughly confusing because it requires me to maintain an internal mental model of where different applications live, and I never use Exposé to find windows because I can either see them or access them with a single press of a function key (mapped in Keyboard Maestro); other TidBITS editors have never even touched Spaces. And I have never found a single use for Dashboard. But, if you’re running within the constrained space of a laptop screen all the time, perhaps Mission Control will be just what you need.

Auto Save and App Resuming — The final two features of iOS that Jobs said Apple would be bringing to Mac OS X Lion were auto-saving and apps resuming where they left off when relaunched. Presumably there’s additional underlying code in iOS that makes it easy for apps to auto-save and save their state, and that will be coming forward into Lion, since there’s certainly no reason at all that a Mac program couldn’t do auto-save now. Some applications, like Firefox and BBEdit, already resume exactly where they left off after a quit or crash.

The Cat’s Meow? — As Steve Jobs’s vaunted Reality Distortion Field fades away, it’s unclear how much of a difference these new features in Mac OS X Lion would make in my computing life. Certainly, the Mac App Store will have huge ramifications for developers and users alike, but it will be released for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in the next 90 days.

While I do some of my work on an aluminum unibody MacBook with a trackpad, most of what I do now is on a Mac Pro with a pair of 24-inch displays, where I use a RollerMouse Pro from Contour Designs for mousing around. Rejiggering my workspace to accommodate a Magic Trackpad would require some doing, and without multi-touch support, I’m uncertain how some of these new features will work. (Glenn Fleishman found the Magic Trackpad painful to use with his minor hand and wrist problems.) And even if I were to add a trackpad to my workspace, I prefer launching apps via Keyboard Maestro’s hotkeys and LaunchBar’s abbreviations, and apart from sliding windows out
of the way of my Desktop, I never use Exposé or Spaces. It’s not that I don’t like them; I simply have no use for them.

Like many TidBITS readers who have equally ingrained and efficient methods of working, I am not Apple’s target audience for Mac OS X Lion. Let me go out on a limb here and suggest in the nicest possible way that Apple doesn’t really care about us. We’re loyal customers and we’ll kit our Macs out with all sorts of clever software from independent developers. Instead, Apple is aiming these changes in Lion at a special sort of switcher—the iOS user who isn’t currently connecting her device to a Mac. Such a person has Windows, but probably doesn’t know much about it, and is buying a Mac because she prefers iOS. Given how many millions of iOS devices Apple has sold to date, that has to be a sizable market, and these people are
already predisposed to like Apple.

Back to the Mac isn’t just about focusing on Mac technologies, it’s about bringing iOS users into the Mac fold for the first time. Jobs said that the Mac accounts for 33 percent of Apple’s revenue now and is a $22 billion business. Fears that Apple might be losing interest in the Mac in favor of iOS and its associated devices still seem unfounded. However, it’s entirely possible that Apple’s renewed focus on the Mac may be taking it in a direction that doesn’t do a lot for professional users (recall that, during the quarterly financial conference call just two days prior, Jobs said, “the consumer is at the forefront”—see “Apple Reports $4.31 Billion Profit for Q4
,” 18 October 2010).

Ponder that for a moment, and if you aren’t entirely happy about it, think about what features Apple could add in Mac OS X Lion that would make your day and add them to the comments on this article. After all, Apple won’t be loosing this Lion on the public for another nine or ten months.

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