The Mac OS X Lion Report: Where Are the Compelling Features?

December 1st, 2010

There was plenty of anticipation ahead of Apple’s recent all-too-brief demonstration of some of the sexier features for 10.7 Lion. After the media assumed Apple was largely focusing on the iOS, to the detriment of the Mac OS, you had to wonder whether we’d see any compelling upgrades for Apple’s venerable product in the near future.

Unfortunately, the “Sneak Peak” we saw several weeks ago seems less than exciting.

At the top of Apple’s list is the Mac App Store, but you don’t have to wait for Lion’s arrival to see it. It’ll debut early next year, with some question marks. By focusing on the sort of easy app design that’s a hallmark of the iOS, major software suites such as Office 2011 and the Adobe Creative Suite would not apply, because they install extra stuff outside of the traditional Applications folder.

Key products that extend system capabilities, such as Ambrosia Software’s WireTap Studio, won’t be allowed, because they add kernel extensions to perform their magic. In this case, it’s capturing audio from such apps as iChat and Skype.

Now it’s fair to say that the Mac App Store remains under development. I realize Apple wants to make the software setup and removal process as simple as possible. Nowadays, installing new apps presents a source of confusion to many Mac users, what with installers, drag and drop, disk images, and so on and so forth. Ridding yourself of an application often involves more than just dragging an icon to the Trash. Quite often there are auxiliary support files that may still be lurking in the background, perhaps autolaunching at startup and consuming system resources, but they aren’t easily removed without some manual labor or a special app removing utility.

As others have observed, the Windows software removal tool presents a superior option, and it’s standard issue on Microsoft’s operating system.

As to Lion itself, I’m sure Apple has good intentions. They want to use the iOS experience to simplify their core OS, and make it easier to manage your stuff. What I’ve seen so far is a mixed bag, and there’s nothing so far to make it a compelling upgrade, though I grant we haven’t seen much. But I would have expected Apple to want to tantalize us right out of the starting gate.

So we have Expose on steroids, dubbed Mission Control, designed to let you keep tabs of all your open apps and document windows. Only it also threatens to further confuse the picture, particularly if you have a not-atypical ten or fifteen apps, and loads of documents, open at any one time. It stands to present not the pretty picture on Apple’s site, but a mass of tiny windows that will make matters even more confusing.

This isn’t to say that everything in Lion isn’t interesting. Full-screen apps, for example, might present a more efficient working environment, particularly when you’re using software that traditionally loads your screen with lots of floating palettes, such as Adobe, or large toolbars, such as the infamous Microsoft ribbon. So long as moving back and forth between the traditional and expanded view is seamless, working on a smaller display, such as the 11-inch MacBook Air, might be more pleasant.

I’m on the fence about Launchpad. In a sense, it grafts the icon barrage from your iOS device to the Mac desktop. If you are forced to see all your available apps, paging and paging through them to find what you want, it’ll be a mess. If you can pick and choose what’s displayed, it may be a useful alternative, although there are existing launching utilities that might be even better. In saying that, there’s nothing to prevent a third party from providing a Launchpad-style product for Snow Leopard.

The Auto-save and Auto-resume features are useful, if not compelling. The former is a feature already available in some apps. There are several third-party utilities that accomplish the task of adding automatic save to all or most of your apps that don’t support the feature. I was using an auto-save utility 20 years ago for the Classic Mac OS. So this presents nothing more than Apple assuming a function third parties have already provided for a number of years, though I grant it’ll likely be more seamless and elegant.

Automatic app resuming brings a key iOS multitasking capability to Mac OS X. It largely eliminates the quit process and replaces it with some form of suspension scheme. The app is halted, rather than quit, ready to resume almost instantaneously via a single click of an icon. This may also mean that the little lightbulbs you see in the Dock to indicate which apps are open will vanish. They won’t be needed. If an app suspends rather than quits, you’ll be able to get back to work almost instantaneously. Consider the Adobe Creative Suite with an extended launch process that typically takes ten, twenty seconds, or even more before you’re ready to work on your document.

I expect that Auto-resume will likely require reprogramming on the part of developers to support new system frameworks, and that means you may have to wait for upgrades before you can use this feature for anything but Apple’s own bundled apps. The same is true for the full-screen capability.

Most of these promised Lion features are potentially useful, with some of my caveats. But they don’t light my fire. I want more.

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2 Responses to “The Mac OS X Lion Report: Where Are the Compelling Features?”

  1. JohnF says:

    “This may also mean that the little lightbulbs you see in the Dock to indicate which apps are open will vanish. They won’t be needed.”

    I certainly hope not. A suspended app is still in RAM. If I want to keep my RAM tidy, I’ll need to know which suspended apps are taking up memory in case I open something large — in order to prevent the OS from either paging out the suspended app, or giving the new incoming app too-small a working set.

    “Adobe Creative Suite with an extended launch process that typically takes ten, twenty seconds, or even more before you’re ready to work on your document.”

    Most of this time is spent paging in the application from disk if this is the first time that the app has been run since the system was last booted. If you quit a large CS app, and then run it again, you’ll find that the startup time is cut drastically, because many of the required pages are still cached in RAM.

    I’m hoping that most of the iOS-ness being added to Lion can be turned off. I don’t want my desktop or laptop to work like a memory-starved, CPU-starved, battery-starved, no-backing-store-equipped mobile device. I want the luxury of keeping many things open and running, simultaneously. IN particular I definitely want to be able to turn off the ‘single-window’ feature. Good feature in iOS; not such a good feature in a desktop OS (though millions of Windows users who love ‘full-screen’ single-window mode would say otherwise).

  2. David says:

    I agree with JohnF; I want my desktop computer to look and work like a desktop computer not a giant smartphone.

    Another reason I’m not looking forward to 10.7 is the inevitable demise of Rosetta. I cannot afford to replace my computer and all my older software (it would double the cost of a new iMac) and losing Rosetta would render all my favourite games unplayable.

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