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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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