Does Lion Dumb Down the Mac OS?

March 18th, 2011

Back in the old days, they used to say that Macs were toys. In order to get “real” work done, you needed to use DOS, particularly in the form of MS-DOS, the text-based OS that was all the rage before graphical user interfaces (GUI for short) took over. Of course, that was until Microsoft begat Windows, which was originally fashioned by overlaying a pretty face — or shell — over DOS. You could still get to the command line if you wanted to show what a power user was made of.

True, today’s Windows is very different, but you can still call up text commands if you want.

With Mac OS X, what you’re getting is a pretty face that covers the king of text-based operating systems, Unix. You can still type arcane commands at the start of your “session” and bring up that a text-based screen. But if you really need to get up close and personal with the underbelly of the Mac, you invoke Terminal and exist in command line heaven.

Personally, I seldom visit Terminal. I know you had to in the early days of Mac OS X to get yourself out of a system-related jam. But that’s rarely true nowadays. I am forced to exercise my limited command line powers from time to time to manage our Web server, which uses a flavor of Linux, and let’s not get into any debates over why I didn’t choose Mac OS X Server for that chore. Let’s just say that generic Linux boxes are a whole lot cheaper to lease, and leave it at that.

In any case, it’s clear that Apple prefers to make operating systems that are warm and fuzzy, and usually get out of the way (more or less) when you want to get something done, or just enjoy music, videos, or an e-book. In building the iOS, the guts of Mac OS X were pared down to the raw essentials, and a superbly simple user interface was created. While I realize some of you prefer the Android OS, and the extra configuration options offered for power users, if you crave a mobile computing appliance, that may not be the way to go.

Following the mantra of “keep it simple,” Apple first announced the iPad with the words, “You already know how to use it.” Most functions can be mastered in a short time, even without having to read a manual, or even a tiny instruction book. Yes, there are loads of hints and tips to be found, but you can discover quite a bit just by touching, pinching, swiping, and so on and so forth.

It appears that Apple’s ultimate goal is to meld the iOS and Mac OS X as much as possible, so you can switch from one to the other without having to think about it. Indeed, they’ve already done a fair amount of that sort of integration with input devices. The basic feel of any Apple standalone keyboard these days is near-identical to the one on their note-books. The Magic Mouse inherits some of the touch capability of the Mac portable trackpad, and I haven’t begun to consider the Magic Trackpad. But I probably won’t, because I had difficulty becoming accustomed to one, despite spending a month with an Apple review unit. But maybe that’s just me.

The point of it all is that it’s clear to me that Apple wants to reduce the learning curve from device to device, and increase the comfort zone. That explains why some iOS features are being transported to Mac OS X Lion, for better or worse.

I’ve got mixed feelings about it, and not just because I’ve spent so many years working on regular Macs beginning in the 1980s, with only rare interruptions to visit the Windows world. In those days, your new Mac would come with several thick books that I expect many of you studied from cover to cover. I read them three times, in fact, although many portions were repetitive, and the prose was hardly of the page turning variety. It was closer to book closing, actually, but I persevered.

These days, Apple expects you to figure out the basics on Macs and mobile gadgets with minimal instruction. It should “just work” is the mantra, although Macs still cause trouble from time to time.

While I’m not averse to having more touch commands in Mac OS X Lion, nor Launchpad and other accouterments of the iOS, some choices are questionable. You shouldn’t, for example, have to click on a document window before the scroll bars appear, in the fashion of the iOS. But I presume that you’ll be able to revert to standard scroll bars, based on the current chatter about the Developer Preview release. But I’d prefer to see the standard scroll bars join the iOS interface, and I can’t be that old fashioned.

All in all, if all these iOS-inspired goodies are retained in the final version of Mac OS X Lion, I only hope it’ll be easy to turn them off.

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19 Responses to “Does Lion Dumb Down the Mac OS?”

  1. DaveD says:

    I believe that the “dumbing down” of the Mac OS X serves two goals. First one for the short term which is to make the Macs very accessible to new users. Especially the users that are new to Apple products by purchasing an iPad and/or iPhone. The second goal is the “Mac iPad.”

    • SonOfA says:


      This is definitely my feeling as well. Look at the pieces of Lion, they are slowly becoming more touch friendly. Launchpad, Apple’s full screen apps, Apps in the app store – they are getting big buttons just begging to be touched. Apple has moved us to using glossy displays only to get us primed for the touchscreen Mac. You may have seen the patents being filed for potential touchscreen convertible Macs. Heck even in Leopard and Snow Leopard’s use of stacks in the dock fan out for peoples big fat fingers, even Time Machine’s system preference has had an iOS On/Off slider since day one. Macs will be touchsceen some day. Apple has been priming us for quite some time! Quite sneaky.. 🙂

  2. jimmy says:

    While Lion is clearly headed in the described direction, let’s remember it also comes with 10.7 Server (the whole magilla)… FREE!

  3. Mark Strait says:

    Wake up and see the future – You sound so foolish getting in the way of progress and innovation. I guess this is why Apple does not do focus group, no innovation. But Google, MS, Cisco do and look at their stuff. Either of a copy of what Apple is going or soon to be a Zuned device. Apple has always pointed us in the right direction. Hey enterprise is dead and it should be.

    • @Mark Strait, Progress and innovation doesn’t mean making things worse. Please consider that distinction.


    • Joe says:

      @Mark Strait, Spoken like a true idiot. Apple is great but its nothing but a cult following. Its closed minded approach thinking their product is the end all be all is all wrong, NO flash because what we have is better… come on, everything still uses flash, and the whole app approval process, who is apple to tell people yes or no you cant run software on equipment that they do not own. Apple is great hardware but the software needs help due to the fact that they think its infallible just watch their press conferences. they all all have their heads so far up each others asses that they can’t see where they are going wrong.

      • @Joe, I don’t know if your name and address are real or not, but here’s something real for you: You can use Flash on OS X, and Apple puts no restrictions on Mac apps that are not offered through the Mac App Store.

        You need a little dose of reality, but it’s clear you won’t let facts get in the way.

        Also, it’s curious why you took for a four-month-old post in which to insert your drivel.


        • Joe says:

          @Gene Steinberg, Come one come all I guess… Another one is born. Very true you can use flash on the MAC OS X…. But the story was about how the new OS is going in the direction of the OSi, and you can’t use flash on the iPad iPhone or iTouch now can you. So why impose the limitation there. If its good enough for the computer why not the mobile. As for the restrictive apps, do a search online for people pissed about apps the were disapproved, I am talking big picture as the company is to hands on with what people do with the hardware they buy. It is not up to apple if I want to run hacking utilities or pirated applications, morally its wrong yes but none of their business. So yes you are right with your reply I should have made my point more clear, I am just sick of these fan-boys that think their shit doesn’t stink when in reality it smells the worst. As for the four month old post… I was searching for info on the new OS because I was thinking of upgrading but it seems that all I can find are these old posts saying that Lion is the OS for computer retards that cant work a simple os without a dumbed up GUI to help their little brains. Then Apple interjects with removing utilities and functions that the “normal” user would not use… Proves they cater to a special group of retards. Whats next finger painting and licking windows.

          • Brian M says:

            @Joe, Flash being “good” on the desktop has very little to do with mobile which has very different requirements. (Namely low power & efficiency, not to mention being usable with a touch interface, something many flash video players don’t even do well other than play & pause, not to mention most other implementations of flash on websites)

            Almost didn’t reply because of your attitude, but maybe it will help others.

            Lion has useful features that don’t involve iOS at all, especially improving efficiency on single monitor systems. The iOS type features are the most obvious of course, although all are optional. The improvements with gestures on a trackpad for a laptop have me seriously considering a laptop for the first time. Normally I don’t find anything less than 2 monitors worth working with (well, possibly a single 27 to 30″ display would have enough pixels) “Mission Control” is (in my opinion at least) well implemented, much more so than Expose & Spaces were, so far it seems to handle several cases that would cause erratic behaviour in some programs if spaces and expose were used.

            As for restricting Applications, it makes sense for mobile devices that are more of an appliance than desktop or laptop computers are. Maybe some year they will do something to restrict applications in the full Mac OS X, but that is not the case with Lion. Most typical users are not “cultists” they just like using things that work that doesn’t require them screwing around with to get working.
            If/when it doesn’t work, then they vote with their dollars to buy something else that does. (As it sounds like Apple may run into if they don’t get some major features added to Final Cut Pro X, or at least put Final Cut Pro 7 back on the market until FCP X is up to speed.)

            • Joe says:

              @Brian M, Thank you. I apologize for my attitude. Not here to pick fights, sorry it may of came off that way. I really just want answers and Marks post set me off, all I could think is that this “cultists” is blind to the fact that apple is very poor in a lot of areas…. I think Windows, Linux, and Mac all have great things to offer so when people attack one just to attack, I get a bit flustered. I use all of these systems, the Mac mainly for media, but I wanted to update the OS to lion and the only info I had was the conference video, I wanted more info to see deeper into the change what I am looking to loose and gain. This just happened to be the first stop. But thanks Brian I agree with your post as apple is lacking where third party apps may provide a better experience. hell I run microsoft office 2011 on the mac. Gene, yes thats my real email and name if you need to email me. I guess I had a bad morning because I really dont know why I was so upset at that post. So I will leave it at that.

  4. Patrick says:

    I’ve got a developer’s preview of Lion and can make the following comments without breaking the NDA.

    It’s clear that there are differences in the operating system between Lion and Snow Leopard. Some of these differences will be subjectively better. Some of these differences will be subjectively worse.

    For example, there’s an option to have disappearing scroll bars (or scroll bars that only appear when you click in a document window). This feature is a translation from the scroll bar method used in iOS. It was introduced in iOS because iOS was used on devices that had extremely limited screen space. As a result, the scroll bars disappeared when not being used, allowing more screen space to be devoted to content. When the window was being scrolled, the scroll bars appeared – in doing so they obscured part of the content, but it was OK in that context as if you were scrolling, you probably were focused on scrolling and not as much on the content.

    Moving to Lion, it is used in situations where there is plenty of screen space, so the need to save screen space is not there. That’s why every desktop GUI has had always-on scroll bars. There was no feedback about the scroll bars taking away screen space from the content, because if you wanted to see more content you just made the window a little bigger.

    But now the disappearing scroll bar concept is out there, floating around in some people’s minds. If you add that feature to Lion, you will make Lion different from Snow Leopard. But you will make the Lion experience consistent with iOS. The people with now desktop experience moving from iOS to Lion (admittedly a small group) will find the disappearing scroll bars completely natural and obvious. Some (many?) moving to Lion from Snow Leopard will find the disappearing scroll bars different, and therefore noticeable, and therefore bad.

    Within a few months after Lion’s release, you will see people rationalizing their like or dislike of the disappearing scroll bars. Someone will post:
    Disappearing scroll bars rock! They get out of the way and allow me to focus on content! It’s just like my iPad! Epic Win!

    Then someone will post:
    Disappearing scroll bars suck! They’re not there when I need them! It’s jarring and disruptive when the suddenly pop up! I’ve built up an entire workflow process that relies on me being able to see at a glance where I am in every document! I have 50 to 75 documents open at a time, and need to see where I am in all of them at a glance! Now I have to go in and click on each of the 75 documents every five minutes or so! Disappearing scroll bars have destroyed my productivity! Epic Fail!

  5. Brian M says:

    so far all but one of the “iOS” type features are optional (launchpad, Mac App Store, Full Screen Apps, and from what I’ve read, the Auto-Save will be optional – but that is up to the app developer)

    Mission Control just appears to be a better combination of expose and spaces, I don’t consider it to be related to iOS at all.

    File versioning is just a good idea that should have been done a while ago)

    Resume is also good for most people (and there is a way to fully quit an app)

    The new Mail program is the only one that I can see that isn’t optional – technically… but you can use a 3rd party program.

  6. Snafu says:

    Watching the demo movies floating around, I can’t help but be rather nervous about Lion. As OS X progresses, it adquires lots of not quite that well implemented features and downright badly thought ones. The Cocoa Finder, as an example, requires extra windows focus maneuvering to receive commands while the Carbon one didn’t; OS X 10.5.0 Leopard’s Dock’s folder listing modes nearly destroyed its usability (and certainly its workings are more troublesome than older versions’); there is a lot of “death by a thousand paper cuts” issues in OS X’ UI. One fears Lion won’t solve them and will introduce/enforce even more of that.

    It is the deeper-than-skin new functionality which looks like being more than welcome (versioning and such). One hopes it is well implemented.

  7. Wayne says:

    On the “disappearing scrollbars”, two observations:

    1. Even on iOS, the scrollbar appears briefly when you enter a window, in order to let you know that you can scroll.

    2. On MacOS devices, I imagine they could either keep the “always show scrollbars” option that the current Lion builds have, or they might become more dynamic. Perhaps you’ll be able to have scrollbars appear on motion or hover — things that you can’t do on current touch-based devices.

    We’ve heard about the doom of the Mac OS when OS X came out: how it broke long-standing Mac conventions, how it was unnatural, how the UNIX geeks had won, etc, etc. MacOS 7 (or 6 if you were a purist) was held up as the high point of all things Mac. Sounds like Snow Leopard (Leopard if you are a purist) is the new obsession.

    Who knows, Lion may be a half step back in some areas, just as MacOS X 1.0 was in some ways a step back from MacOS 7. I think we have enough track record now to see that it will ultimately move forward, sometimes with great leaps, and sometimes at a crawl.

  8. Terrin says:

    I hope Apple doesn’t listen to the naysayers. That cost me my tabs on top of Safari. Now I have to use Firefox Beta.

  9. Edward says:

    I want to give a little perspective from other types of Mac users. There are some of us that use their computers hands-free complements of voice-recognition. Now all these new gesture-based interfaces do nothing for me, or even those of you that enjoy operating your computer via the keyboard instead of the trackpad or mouse. I really hope they put some thought into this and provided ways to turn these interfaces off, or provide keyboard navigation, or both.

    • Brian M says:


      That is something that has been worked on for iOS is the voice control, although is likely much more simplified over what you would need on a full computer.

      With performance levels better than ever, and probably being able to multi-thread the voice processing, it’ll continue to improve gradually

      and maybe some year, you’ll be able to put in where you grew up for better accent detection (or if that doesn’t work, where you live now if your accent has changed too much)

      some year you’ll be able to mostly interact by voice, but I do not see other interface methods going away… just all will be as easily available, for whatever is most efficient at any given time. (I type much faster than I speak)

  10. James Katt says:

    I think Lion makes Mac OS X both simpler and more complicated.

    It is more complicated because it has yet another way of doing the same thing.

  11. Jon says:

    However much touch will be implemented in the Mac, I have yet to see how the inherent ergonomic problem in a desktop Mac (or PC) will be solved. How an iPod, iPhone or iPad is used is fundamentally different than how a desktop Mac is used (and I’m not talking about “what” any device is being used for) and will probably remain so regardless of how much merging there will be of OS X and iOS.

    Pretty much every time I see this issue brought up it is either dismissed as something trivial that Apple will have no problem solving (if they haven’t solved it already), or some simplistic “solution” is proposed by people who (by the “solution” they propose) clearly have no grasp of the issue.

    If Apple can solve the ergonomic problem, that will be great… but I’m not optimistic. Some problems simply have no solution… or none that is practical to implement.

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