Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 28 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

Mac OS X Lion: What to Expect

[DO NOT PUBLISH – m.]

In my earlier article, “Preparing for Lion: Find Your PowerPC Applications” (6 May 2011), I talked about one possible aspect of the upcoming major system revision, Mac OS X Lion — the possible loss of Rosetta. (For more about that, and especially for some historical context, listen to the podcast of my MacVoices discussion with Chuck Joiner.) But what else can we expect Lion to bring?

Apple has been remarkably forthcoming on this topic, providing press releases, listing and illustrating numerous features in a Web page devoted to Lion, and even demonstrating Lion in a special event video starring Steve Jobs. So there is no need to rely on complete guesswork or rumor to know what’s coming. Of course Apple could change its mind about anything at any time before the actual release of Lion, and there are undoubtedly some new features that Apple has kept under wraps so far, but forewarned is forearmed, and the information Apple has provided gives plenty of food for thought and analysis.

Adam has already done a great job of relaying and parsing Apple’s propaganda, in “Apple Offers a Glimpse of Mac OS X Lion” (20 October 2010) and “Apple Reveals More about Mac OS X Lion” (24 February 2011). My own discussion here will take the form of a commentary on, and occasional direct quotes from, the Web page about Lion I mentioned earlier. This format will give us some screenshots and specific text to examine together. My goal is to give you a good look at what that text actually says, similar to what I used to do as a Classics professor, forcing my students to face and grapple with the details of a Greek tragedy. So bring up that Lion page, class, and follow along with me on a tour of the future.

Mac App Store — No big surprise here. Apple didn’t wait until Lion to open the Mac App Store: it first appeared in Snow Leopard in Mac OS X 10.6.6. We can expect the Lion version to work much the same way. Apple’s screenshot shows that it resembles its Snow Leopard incarnation, modeled after the iOS App Store familiar from iTunes.

Notice also, in that screenshot, the App Store icon in the Dock. We can expect that this icon will be present by default in the Dock, but as in Snow Leopard it should be removable, like any other icon, if you don’t want to be constantly reminded of the power of the purse. There will probably also be an App Store menu item featured prominently in the Apple menu, just as in Snow Leopard. I won’t comment further on the Mac App Store itself, since Adam has already done so; in any case we’re all becoming accustomed to it, whether we like it or not.

Launchpad — This feature has given rise to the most ridiculous rumors and unnecessary confusion: “Oh my gosh, they’ve done away with the Finder and made the interface look like an iPad!” No such thing. Apple says: “Just click the Launchpad icon in your Dock. Your open windows fade away.” Launchpad is just an application. If you run it, it puts an iPad-like window in front of everything else on your screen. If you don’t run it, nothing happens. Apple hasn’t done away with anything here. They’ve added something. It’s called a launcher.

Well, it’s about time. In my Take Control books, with each successive iteration of Mac OS X, I’ve advised readers to get one of the many launchers out there, from James Thomson’s DragThing to Peter Lewis’s Switcher Maestro. Being a keyboard-oriented person, my favorite is still LaunchBar, and assuming it works in Lion (and there’s no reason to suppose it won’t), I intend to keep using it. But for those cheapskates who refuse to spend money on anything, take heart: there is now such a thing as a free launcher.

A secondary screenshot, along with Apple’s text, shows how closely modeled on the iOS “springboard” Launchpad really is. You’ll be able to drop one application icon onto another to create a “folder” as a way of organizing applications within Launchpad, and you’ll be able to move application icons onto different “pages”, and swipe from page to page, just as on the iPad. May we even guess that holding down the mouse on an icon in Launchpad will send the icons into “jiggly mode”?

We could debate until the cows come home whether a Mac launcher modeled after the iOS “springboard” is a good idea. But being built-in is itself good. One of my key criteria in judging a Mac OS X feature, apart from my usual power user stance, is whether a fairly naive user like my mother would benefit from it. All things considered, I think she would! She’s terrible about remembering that her applications are in the Applications folder; most of what she commonly uses is in the Dock, fortunately, but occasionally she needs a bigger picture. With Launchpad in her Dock, I can train her to get a nice graphical layout of her application icons. Plus, there’s a new trackpad gesture specifically devoted to summoning Launchpad. Many users who are more like my mother than like me will probably end up performing that gesture many times a day.

Full-Screen Windows — Although Apple calls this section of the Lion Web page “Full-screen apps”, the accompanying text tells us otherwise. These are windows. So some applications are going to give us the option to take at least some windows into full-screen mode. How will we exercise that option? Apple says “with one click,” so we may assume that such windows will contain a full-screen button (and its icon will probably be two diagonal arrows pointing away from each other).

This feature is not a complete surprise, because Apple has already been implementing it some of their own applications. The difference is that the technology for making a window full-screen has been promoted to system level in Lion: “Systemwide support allows third-party developers” to make their apps behave this way. An application that wants to give the user the option to place some of its windows in full-screen mode must be rewritten for Lion and must treat those windows in some special, deliberate way.

What will a full-screen window look like? The window blocks out everything else on the screen. The menu bar is hidden, though doubtless there will be some simple way to summon it — probably by mousing to the top of the screen, as one can do in iPhoto now. Toolbars can also be hidden; clearly this is optional, since the Mail screenshot has a toolbar but the Preview screenshot doesn’t.

Is full-screen mode a good idea? Sure. The feature is optional, so if you don’t like it, just don’t put a window into full-screen mode. If you do like it, it will probably be because a large window occupying the whole screen is clearer and less distracting than the multilayered windows of multiple applications we’re accustomed to seeing. No functionality will be lost: keyboard shortcuts will still work, the toolbar can still be present, and the menu bar can be summoned in a pinch. In any case, as Adam has already suggested, an application rewritten to permit full-screen windows should have its interface redesigned slightly to provide all commonly needed functionality without summoning the menu bar. So mouse-clickers will be happy, and keyboard shortcut memorizers will be happy too.

Clearly Apple is trying to make the Mac interface at least sometimes more like the iPad, which Adam has so notably praised for being just one thing at a time; see “Why the iPad Is a Blank Slate, and Why That’s Important,” 5 April 2010, an article that Apple explicitly quoted at WWDC 2010. And remember, a single-application mode of one sort or another has been hidden under the hood for years in Mac OS X (see Lewis Butler’s “Revealing Mac OS X’s Hidden Single-Application Mode,” 6 October 2009). Finally, recall how Doug McLean praised applications that could “Minimize Desktop Distractions” (4 December 2008); now Apple is building in a way to do that very thing.

The devil, of course, will be in the details. First, let’s face it: Not every application is a good candidate for full-screen windows, and we may expect that many applications, including some of Apple’s, will never have them, which is perfectly fine. (A utility application such as System Preferences, for example, makes little sense in full-screen mode.) Second, will individual applications do a good job of adjusting their interface to the demands of full-screen mode? Adam tells me that the new version of iPhoto (which I haven’t seen) does a fairly poor job of it. Users won’t take a given app window into full-screen mode unless it works well there. Third, and above all, how will Apple enable users to navigate to and from full-screen windows? Unless that’s very easy and intuitive, full-screen windows will be more of a hindrance than a help. Read on: I’ll discuss that more in a moment.

Mission Control — What’s in a name (apart from the opportunity to make a lot of tired “Houston, we have a problem” jokes)? The screenshot says it all. Mission Control is nothing but Exposé, gussied up one more time. Apple has never figured out just what it wanted to do with Exposé, and has revamped its interface in every major system release since its introduction in Mac OS X 10.3. This is merely Lion’s turn to do some gussying. “Powerful and handy new feature,” my foot.

But let’s get the scoffing out of our system and look closely at the screenshot. Open windows are organized and badged by the application that owns them; very nice! The simple fact is, after all, that Exposé needs some gussying up. I think it’s safe to say that most people haven’t been using it in its earlier incarnations. I’m a power user and I rarely use it. It’s been too clumsy, too obscure, too unhelpful. Mission Control’s reorganization of the open windows display may seem like a simple and obvious change, but for me it’s going to make a huge difference, because now I stand a chance of being able to identify and switch to the window I’m looking for. Also, this change turns Mission Control into both a window switcher and an app switcher, a more dramatic and graphically informative cousin of the Command-Tab switcher.

The Dock appears across the bottom of the screen in Mission Control, so we can assume that, as in Snow Leopard, it will provide a way to move from this Mission Control mode (which, in connection with Exposé, I’ve called All Windows mode, showing all the windows of every application) to Application Windows mode (showing all the windows of just one application).

Now turn your attention to those small rectangles running across the top of the screen. One represents Dashboard. One represents the Desktop. The other two represent full-screen windows! So here’s one way in which you’ll be able to navigate to and from full-screen windows — namely, by passing through Mission Control. Furthermore, if you watch the video in the next section of Apple’s Lion page, called “Gestures and animations,” you’ll see a user navigating between Dashboard, the Desktop, and several full-screen windows by swiping right or left.

This business of bringing a complete new interface sideways onto the screen should remind you of another Mac OS X technology that hasn’t worked as well for users as it should — Spaces. Apple has been clear that Mission Control embraces not only Exposé but Spaces as well. The fact is that those rectangles across the top of the Mission Control screen are Spaces. This isn’t obvious because only one of them, the Desktop, corresponds to a Space in the traditional sense. But navigation to full-screen windows works the way it does because a full-screen window is a Space (that is, it lives in a Space of its own).

Adam rightly points out in his analysis that this unification of Exposé with Spaces under the single Mission Control umbrella makes sense, because currently Exposé and Spaces are doing the same sort of thing in different mental places. On Snow Leopard on my machine, if I press F9 I see an overview of all windows; if I press F8 I see an overview of all Spaces. But these both have to do with window management, so the separation of powers is redundant, and puts just one more confusing wrench in a toolbox I rarely crack open. Mission Control provides an overview of windows and Spaces. This grand unification should make Mission Control genuinely useful in Lion, especially since full-screen windows are Spaces.

Autosaving and Versions — With the next two sections of Apple’s Lion page, we start to enter more controversial territory. “Say good-bye to manual saving,” we’re commanded. So evidently Apple would like to migrate us into a world where we never choose File > Save any more; for certain applications, at least, documents will be saved automatically as we work. This is not entirely surprising, since we know that Apple is deriving lessons throughout Lion from its experience with iOS — and in iOS, applications save their own state constantly, without our having to request it. Autosaving has been around as an option on the desktop since Tiger, to be sure, but this is different: instead of saving a copy off to the side in case of loss, “Lion saves changes in the working document.” So these applications really will just periodically save for us, exactly as if we had chosen File > Save manually, but without our having to do so.

I find this idea rather scary. It’s true that my System 7 past has me so terrified of losing data in case of a crash that I often save manually about once a minute; but then, will Lion really autosave as frequently as I would? And, just the other way around, I sometimes work experimentally in a document, secure in the knowledge that if I get myself tangled up in blue I can just close the document without saving and start over from scratch; if Lion saves for me in the meantime, isn’t there a chance my document will be overwritten in undesirable ways?

Apple provides some mitigating features apparently intended to reassure me. First, Revert will still work, so at least I can return to the initial state of the document; evidently Lion is taking a snapshot of the document as it opens and squirreling that away somewhere, in case I need it. And the new Versions feature is periodically going to preserve multiple iterations of the state of the document (“every hour while you’re working on it”) which I can retrieve in a Time Machine-like interface. In addition, Apple has revealed that an autosaved document will be lockable, which is in a sense the same thing as turning autosaving off.

Frankly, I’m not reassured. Saving is one of those things I’d like left under my control, thank you very much. I can imagine a preference that would toggle autosaving at the level of individual applications or the system as a whole, but I would have some trepidation about using a Lion in which those applications that implement autosaving give me no choice in the matter. Even more significant, I’d have some trepidation about putting my mother in front of such a system. She has learned that if something goes wrong, all she has to do is close without saving. Is she really going to understand that if she wants to experiment with something that might go wrong, she now needs to lock her document first?

And that brings me to what I think is actually the worst part of autosaving — the elephant in the proverbial room, actually. Apple has made it clear that an application must be rewritten for Lion in order to participate in autosaving; it’s an opt-in technology. Now think about what this is going to mean for users. You’re going to be using two kinds of applications from now on. Some applications, those that adopt autosaving, are going to be trying to get you out of the habit of saving (indeed, for all I know, they might not even have a Save menu item): they’ll be saving a snapshot as you open a document, saving periodically as you work, saving as you quit. At the same time, other applications, those that don’t adopt it, will continue working the old way, trying to keep you in that habit.

This division of applications into two classes, reminiscent of the old division between Carbon and Cocoa applications (remember when their interfaces looked quite different?), and especially the conflicting nature of the habits they’re going to be reinforcing in the user, is likely to be extremely uncomfortable at the least. I’m going to be trying to save all the time in an application that doesn’t need it, or forgetting to save in an application that does. This is not going to be pleasant.

Resume — This is the last section of Apple’s Lion page that I’ll comment on. “Whenever you quit and relaunch an app, Resume opens it precisely the way you left it.” Or, as Apple describes it in their press release: “Resume, which conveniently brings your apps back exactly how you left them when you restart your Mac or quit and relaunch an app.”

“Conveniently?”

All my life, one of the main purposes and benefits of quitting an application has been to clear out its state, so that we can launch again later in a clean, empty world. Quitting has been a great comfort to me in that respect. Now Lion is going to take that away that comfort: the next time I launch the application, it’s going to come back “the way I left it.” This implies that all the documents that were open are going to open again, all by themselves. This idea doesn’t sound convenient to me; indeed, it reminds me of nothing so much as a zombie movie, where the dead stubbornly refuse to stay dead.

Even restarting isn’t going to help, because “Resume lets you restart your Mac… and return to what you were doing.” After a restart, Lion is going to relaunch all the apps I was using previously — and those apps will proceed to reopen all the documents and windows they had open before. Again, this is not what I want at all. To me, restarting has always meant, “Get me out of here and let’s have a totally clean world.” That’s one reason why I restart. Now that won’t work.

Again, this conception seems based on iOS, where an app is expected to save its state and restore it the next time it’s launched. But is such a thing really appropriate to the desktop? I can see how this might be an occasionally useful option: a menu item reading Quit and Save State might not be entirely unwelcome. But that word “whenever” worries me. Is it possible that this state-saving, automatic document-opening behavior is going to be the default? And if so, will Apple give users any way to opt out of it? Time will tell.

Conclusions — It seems to me that Lion will be a mixed bag. Launchpad is a launcher I can live without, and I intend to do so; but I can certainly imagine how some users will benefit from it. Optional full-screen windows and an improved Exposé — an Exposé, perhaps, that’s improved enough so that I’ll actually use it — sound quite delightful, and I look forward to them.

On the other hand, automatic saving of documents and automatic restoration of an application’s state seem like taking the notion of “automatic” too far. When a computer tries to be smarter than its human, it usually fails; it isn’t smart, it’s a smarty-pants, and no one likes that. Remember the annoying Microsoft paper clip, which “knew” what you were doing and proposed to do it “better” for you? That’s what autosave and Resume feel like to me. Perhaps in the event they won’t turn out to be so bad; I hope they won’t. But from the evidence, these ideas represent a misapplication of iOS concepts to the computer desktop. They may attract some new Mac users whose only experience of Apple products is the iPhone or the iPad, but the rest of us, I fear, are only going to be annoyed.

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For 28 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.