Some thoughts on Mac OS X Lion

I had planned to write a more exhaustive review of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, but alas, other projects and unforeseen setbacks have forced me to be more succinct. That's not entirely bad, I suppose. Lion has been out for a good couple of weeks now, and odds are folks who care about such things have already come across an in-depth review or two. (John Siracusa's 19-page epic over at Ars Technica is certainly worth a read, if you can spare the time.)

What I'd like to do, instead, is talk about OS X Lion in a more general sense from my perspective as a humble user. I grabbed the new operating system shortly after its release on July 20, and I've been using it on and off since then, trying to get comfortable with the new features, the user-interface changes, and the compatibility kinks among third-party apps.

Lion serves up many neat additions—definitely more than the previous OS X release. Launchpad keeps all of your installed applications in a tidy, iOS-style grid just a touchpad gesture away. The Mission Control feature combines the strong points of Exposé and Spaces, allowing you to dart across windows, applications, and desktops all from one central hub. Apple has implemented full-screen apps, which almost blur the distinction between OS X and iOS. A myriad of other little goodies, like inertial scrolling and new UI animations, spice up the experience further.

I'm slowly learning to appreciate the novelties, all the while trying not to grumble about the changes. Apple has shown once again that it's not afraid to re-sculpt its operating system with a chainsaw, putting its own vision ahead of the impulse to keep users in a peaceful bubble of old habits. Front Row, for instance, is gone, giving way to iTunes' full-screen mode (and, no doubt about it, the separately sold Apple TV). The addition of a zillion new multi-touch gestures has had the side effect of killing drag-and-dropping in tap-to-click mode, while three-finger swipes to go back and forward in Finder windows are now disabled by default. The three-finger swipes can be re-enabled in the Trackpad control panel, while the setting to restore the old drag-and-drop mechanism is hidden away under Universal Access. Also, if you were familiar with Exposé, too bad. Mission Control is the new kid in town, and you'll have to learn how to use that before your productivity can ramp up again. Before then, you'll probably find yourself trying to track down the setting that disables Lion's annoying iOS-style autocorrect (it's in the Language & Text control panel, under the Text tab).

Now, an aggressive approach to operating system updates certainly has its upsides. Having to re-learn how to use you computer every few years might suck, but OSes stifled by an excessive mindfulness of backward compatibility can suck even more.

That's what you might think, at least. Strangely, though, using OS X Lion doesn't feel like starting from a clean slate. In fact, now more than ever, I get the feeling that Apple lacks a cohesive vision for its Mac operating system—or if it doesn't, that vision fails to shine through in day-to-day use. Despite being so bold in so many ways, OS X still comes across as a jumbled mess of user-interface paradigms from different epochs, all failing to coexist peacefully like quirky roommates in a sitcom.

Paradoxically, and despite its greater emphasis on backward compatibility, Windows feels more cohesive than this latest OS X release. Maybe it's because, thus far, Microsoft has been too afraid to upset users with sweeping changes and additions, preferring instead to insert more subtle improvements at a slower pace. Vista hardly shook up old interface paradigms, even if it applied a new coat of paint to them.

Lion just combines too many different philosophies for its own good. The menu bar remains at the top of the screen, for example, evoking the early days of Mac OS. Back then, windows were always children of their parent application, and closing all of an app's windows left the app running with its menu bar awaiting instructions. When OS X came along, some apps took to emulating Windows software, automatically quitting when their main window was shuttered. Now, Lion adds a third behavior: full-screen apps, which turn the Mac's timeless window-centric philosophy up on its head.

Another throwback to the original Mac days is the notion of apps as self-contained entities in the file system. That worked in the original Mac days, but many OS X apps now have installers that toss files all over the place... and, for the most part, there are no uninstallers. Lion doesn't fix that. To make matters more confusing, application icons seem to be replicated in an ever-increasing variety of locations: you've now got the Applications folder, where software is actually installed; the Dock, where apps purchased in the Mac App Store automatically appear; the Applications directory shortcut in the Dock, which opens up a bubble with a list of all installed applications; and Launchpad, which presents the same list in a grid spanning the whole screen. Which icons are the real apps, and which ones are the shortcuts? Good luck figuring that one out, grandma.

Perhaps the worst offender in this menagerie of ill-aged UI elements is the Finder, which awkwardly takes design cues from web browsers and blends them with the old-school, one-window-per-folder design of the original Mac. Finder windows randomly lose their toolbars, and only with Lion have users gained the ability to apply different view settings (list, icon, column, or Cover Flow) to specific folders. Before Lion came out last month, switching one OS X folder to list view applied that setting system-wide. Lion supplements the Finder with the entirely absurd All My Files screen, which shows every file in your user directory, sorted by category, in flat horizontal lists. For me, that means each new Finder window proudly shows me all of my IRC log files, which are generated automatically every day and searched once in a blue moon.

In a way, it seems like this helter-skelter design philosophy can be traced back to the late 1990s, when Apple tried to impart NeXTSTEP with the look and feel of Mac OS in a bid to put Mac OS 9 out of its misery. Mac OS X started its life as the strange lovechild of the old Mac operating system and a Unix-like workstation OS with a radically different UI. Today, the genetic defects stemming from that awkward mating are as apparent as ever—and genes pilfered from Windows and iOS along the way have only made OS X uglier, at least from a UI consistency standpoint. I'm left wishing that Apple had given us NeXTSTEP 5.0 instead of Mac OS X 10.0 a decade ago. (But alas, Apple needed the Mac-like UI to ease the transition and hold on to its then-slim market share.) I cringe when I think of a novice user picking up his first Mac today and trying to make sense of the conflicting UI paradigms in an OS that's, strangely, billed as more homogenous and consistent than the competition.

Now, I don't want you to come away with the wrong impression. These are complaints about OS X as a whole rather than Lion specifically. As a power user, I find the aforementioned flaws more a source of disappointment than a genuine impediment to my productivity. The only really serious issue with Lion may be the application compatibility issues I've run into. (Google Chrome 12, for instance, supported the full-screen feature but wouldn't let me switch out of full-screen mode until I quit and restarted the app.) Compatibility kinks aren't really Apple's fault, and they're a necessary hurdle faced by any radical OS update. Considering the rather modest $29.99 asking price, I think Lion offers enough improvements over Snow Leopard to make up for the oversights in its design.

Rather, I'm more disappointed to think of what Lion could have been than to see what it really is.

Apple needs to realize—if it hasn't already—that it just can't shoehorn ideas from Mac OS Classic, NeXSTEP, Windows, iOS, and Mac OS X into a single, homogenous product. There are already rumors that Lion may be the last OS X release, and I certainly hope that's true. Hopefully, the future of the Mac lies with a supercharged version of iOS and an OS X compatibility mode for legacy apps. OS X as it exists today just needs to retire, though. Its best days are gone, and the future calls for something quite different.

I think we're currently seeing the start of a dramatic shift in user-interface models, much like the great migration from the command line to GUIs that began three decades ago. Back then, power users clung to their DOS screens and Unix shells, but graphical interfaces allowed a new wave of users to embrace computing. Today, users are fleeing the now-clunky GUIs of Mac OS X and Windows, favoring tablets an order of magnitude more elegant and straightforward to use. And with good reason. How many Mac and PC users lack a full understanding of how to use their computers? How many fear to venture beyond the familiar waters of their web browser and e-mail clients? How many have no option but to call tech-savvy friends whenever they encounter problems printing a document, upgrading Skype, or trying to deal with a virus infection?

The answer: entirely too many. And an evolutionary approach to PC operating system design is not the solution. Microsoft realizes that, if those Windows 8 user-interface demos are any indication. I hope Apple realizes it, too.

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