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Does Lion Dumb Down the Mac OS?

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.