WWDC Announcements: Mac OS X 10.7 Lion

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Steve Jobs and the executive team at Apple held forth with a mighty slew of announcements yesterday at Apple's annual Worldwide Developer's Conference. What can Mac and iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch users look forward to in the near future? Well, if you want to soak it up just as the developer masses did on Monday, nuke up some popcorn and treat yourself to the actual keynote itself.

Or we can summarize it for you. Spoiler alert: no new iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV, or Mac models were announced. Software only. Settle down.

First up: Mac OS X 10.7, aka "Lion"

Shipping in July, this new major release of the Mac operating system boasts a ton of new features and, more notably, some of the most dramatic interface changes since the first Mac shipped in 1984. Windows without scroll bars? Full screen applications? These and other changes, many inspired by iOS (the operating system which drives iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch), are coming your way very shortly. Sophisticated multi-finger trackpad gestures will zoom into pictures, breeze through open windows, and more. Mission Control is sort of like a super-Exposé, where you can see miniature windows grouped by application, plus Dashboard widgets, Spaces, and other stuff. LaunchPad temporarily hides everything and shows you all of your application icons in a neat grid, just like your favorite mobile operating system. It sure looks to us like Lion is heralding touch-screen Macs in the not-so-far future, as the lines between a mobile device and a desktop computer continue to blur.

While these interface enhancements make the Mac that much nicer to use, there are some interesting conceptual changes as well. They may not sound sexy (just as Time Machine didn't back when it made its début in Leopard), but we think Auto Save and Versions are pretty exciting. In a nutshell, these features mean the Mac is always saving your work, and you can compare older versions of documents side by side against newer ones, without you having to do anything, because it's saving automatically. It's a bit like the way Google Docs operates, but for a desktop operating system. You almost don't need to think about saving at all; you just use your applications. (These features will only work with applications that are updated to support them.)

Other cool tricks: AirDrop lets you copy files to nearby Macs on the same network, easy-peasy--it replaces the USB thumb drive. Also, Lion remembers where applications left their windows and other settings even after you quit them, like Mail already does. And, speaking of Mail, it's now going to look a lot more like Mail on an iPad. (I'm not sure this is a good thing, but we'll see.) And all the other Apple applications (e.g. Safari, Preview, etc.) have received enhancements large and small. And, very interestingly, Lion comes with a tool to help switchers migrate from a Windows PC, copying all of the files to the right places on your Mac. (If you want to read about every last new feature in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, click here to enjoy.)

The good news: it only costs $29. The bad news: you can't just go buy it on a disc. You have to have Snow Leopard first (which, if it didn't come with your Mac, is itself $29), and then you have to download the Lion installer from the Mac App Store (which was recently introduced into Snow Leopard). At 4 GB, that's 3+ hours on a typical DSL connection. (How support professionals can make this efficient for the people we help remains to be seen, but we have to assume there will be a way.) This reminds me of when the original Mac shipped without any arrow keys on its keyboard to make people get used to the mouse, or when the iMac shipped exclusively with USB ports to force hardware developers to ditch serial and ADB devices. The point being made this time, in my view, is to declare the Mac App Store as the principal method of Mac software distribution, just like the iOS App Store. I get it, but personally, I think it's bonkers to not be able to install an operating system without a huge download first.

Also, Mac OS X 10.7 will drag you out of the past in other ways. It can't be installed on the first Intel-based Macs (with Core Solo or Core Duo processors; Core 2 Duo is the minimum). And, possibly more significantly, it won't run any software which hasn't been updated for Intel-based Macs. If you want to keep using Quicken 2007 or eFax Messenger or your favorite bit of abandonware, you're going to have to hold off on Lion, or keep a Snow Leopard drive around, or use software like Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion to run Snow Leopard Server simultaneously.

Whew, that's a lot, and we haven't even gotten to iOS 5 or (drum roll) iCloud. We'll have more on these in the coming days.

(June 2011)

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