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Does Apple Want to Rethink the User Interface?

All right, so we all know that Mac OS X Lion is going to incorporate some stuff from the iOS, but those few features are mostly special effects, rather than actual productive tools. Chief among the additions are Mission Control, a single window showing open apps and comments, Launchpad, which mimics the icon display on an iOS device, and the full-screen document window feature.

Two other features, automatic saving of documents and resuming apps, are pretty useful, though unexceptional. Especially the first, even though Apple is doing little more than incorporating a feature in the operating system that has long been available in certain apps and by third-party utilities. The real question is why it took Apple over two decades to get the message that people often forget to save critical documents regularly, and need a little help.

With auto-resume, you can reopen to an app in an instant, same as on the iOS. You won’t have to endure those dreadful 20 to 30 second launch times on some software, particularly the stuff that loads plugins and extensions on first launch. But you’ll have to wait for apps to actually support the system frameworks that’ll no doubt be required to allow that to happen. Don’t expect Adobe, Microsoft, or even Quark Inc. to jump on that bandwagon for a year or two.

One other feature in desperate need for improvement is Time Machine, but we don’t know if anything of that sort will happen in Lion. Yes, it’s great to have a fairly seamless automatic backup capability as standard issue in Mac OS X. We all know that Mac users are as bad as their PC counterparts when it comes to protecting their stuff. But Time Machine is also inflexible, and, just as bad, dreadfully slow. You can get third-party utilities that’ll allow more scheduling choices, but you still can’t easily restore an entire volume. You’re forced into a scheme not much different from Apple’s Migration Assistant, which is used to grab your stuff from your old Mac to your new one. It’s not as if you can restart from a backup drive in case something goes wrong with your hard drive, as you can with some of those nifty backup apps that make actual clone backups.

My backup routine, for example, uses Time Machine — which sends my stuff to an Apple Time Capsule — but I also use Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper!, which backs up my entire drive to an external device. It’s a smart product, because you don’t have to back up all your stuff after the initial run. An incremental feature, common with such apps, only copies the new or changed files, and removes the ones you’ve deleted. What this means is that, as of the time my daily backup is done, the backup drive mirrors my iMac’s internal drive. Apple’s clearly got some work to do to catch up.

The most important issue, however, is whether Apple will actually deliver something original to Lion. The fluff is fine, the rethinking of old utilities is also encouraging, but where does Apple want to take us? Would it be a couple of hundred flashy features or minor enhancements that leave the significant capabilities alone, or will Apple try something totally different and attempt to wean us off the old fashioned file/folder metaphor of the last century?

When Mac OS X first came out, fans and critics alike talked about the fancy Aqua interface, sitting atop a tried and true Unix operating system. When I wrote a book on the new OS at the time, my first chapter was meant to show how similar Mac OS X seemed when compared to the first Mac OS in 1984. You still had files, folders, pull-down menus and document windows. Even in 2010, of the skills you learned 26 years ago are readily applied to the Mac of today. Yes, there are interface refinements and some changes in the way things are done, but the learning curve for a mythical time traveler from the days of the original Mac wouldn’t be so severe. I rather think such a visitor would be surprised how similar things turned out. What about Star Trek’s talking computers?

Of course, you don’t change the fundamentals of personal computing casually. It’s nowhere as trivial as ditching the floppy or optical drive, or replacing SCSI and ADB with FireWire and USB. There will be lots of relearning to be done, unless, of course, the replacement interface is more intuitive, more readily grasped even by the inexperienced user.

Today’s iOS has some of that down pat. The original ads for the iPad, with voiceovers from actor Peter Coyote, promised that “you already know how to use it.” Indeed, even a child will touch things to learn more about them. It doesn’t take a whole lot of practice to master an iPad or iPhone’s touchscreen. While there are some power user tips to be discovered, most of you, I’m sure, don’t need them. What you need to know to make these gadgets work is readily grasped without the learning curve.

Now touch isn’t so useful with a large screen, although Apple has been expanding the things you can do with trackpads and, of course, the Magic Mouse. But that’s just input, and it doesn’t change how you actually manage your documents. Worse, even power users may run into trouble, from time to time, dealing with files, folders, and figuring out what goes where. Managing the OS should be an afterthought. It should be seamless, not an ever-present intrusion that far too often prevents you from actually doing something productive with your Mac.

Does Apple have a solution at hand? I’m not expecting to see it in Mac OS X Lion, but I sure would love to be amazed one more time.