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Apple’s Misguided Lion Upgrade Scheme

When Microsoft announced that you had to do a “clean install” to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, even so-called Microsoft fans complained, and loudly. This meant they’d have to basically backup, erase, and restore their hard drives. Only Windows Vista offered a direct upgrade path, and it wasn’t a pretty picture, although I suppose lots of people just went out and bought new PCs, or used a third party utility, called the IT department, or summoned an outside repair person to handle the chore.

Maybe it is true that Microsoft was in collusion with the PC makers to make the XP upgrade process so difficult, most Windows users would just buy new computers; maybe.

Now I have to say that Apple’s upgrade process for Mac OS 10.7 is nowhere near as involved, even if you never upgraded to Snow Leopard. But I don’t really think it makes a whole lot of sense either, even though I realize the fact that Apple might have wanted to make the Lion installer as simple as possible.

A positive; Hardware support for Lion seems pretty extensive. Just about any Intel-based Mac released since the middle to latter part of 2006, meaning an Intel Core 2 Duo processor or better, will work with Lion. A five-year Window is pretty good for Apple. At the same time, I expect that the $29 upgrade price for Snow Leopard, plus loads of new Macs sold since 10.6 arrived in August of 2009, only leaves a small number of eligible Mac users still using Leopard or Tiger.

However, to upgrade to Lion from Leopard, it’s a double installation at best. First they have to upgrade to Snow Leopard, and upgrade that initial installation to 10.6.7 (Mac App Store debuted in 10.6.6). The reason is that Lion will only be available via that route. There will be no retail upgrade kits, no DVDs. That’s the price you pay for convenience, assuming downloading a 4GB file is convenient for you.

Once you’ve running 10.6.7 or later (and there’s a rumor of a 10.6.8 under development as we speak), you can then install Lion. Does this make sense for the company whose products “just work”?

At the very least, Apple ought to consider a combo installer DVD in a retail package at a special price, say $39. Forcing non-adopters of 10.6 to buy two upgrades to get one just isn’t fair, or reasonable so far as I’m concerned. As a matter of fact, not having a physical disc is a bad idea, for it forces millions of Mac users to undergo an extra expense and upgrade process to get the latest and greatest Mac OS.

Certainly Apple raised the bar here by adding a rich set of useful features, plus the promise of better security and reliability, for an extremely low price of admission. Even if only a small number of the other 250 fancy new features are useful to you, you’ll probably benefit from the $29.99 Lion upgrade, assuming there are no serious bugs with your existing software.

Now with Lion’s official debut only a few weeks away, it’s not as if Apple should be expected to change their ways overnight. Even if there is a physical Lion DVD, once the installation is done, updates will be tied in to the Mac App Store. This is part and parcel of Apple’s plans to assume control of most of the software purchase process via the online route. They already boast selling more Mac apps than the largest consumer electronic retailers, and the season is young. Once more and more Mac enjoy have the benefit of the Mac App Store, the number of software publishers who consider selling their products separately will be reduced considerably.

Yes, I realize there are shortcomings to Apple’s curated ecosystem. Certain apps, particularly those that would normally require Administator’s access with a password, or install background apps and kernel extensions, are still prohibited. But if Apple hopes to make it worthwhile for all developers to get involved, they will have to bend. Hopefully Lion is offering the features that developers need to adopt to allow for a wider range of apps to be offered. I’m sure the developers in our audience may want to chime in, insofar as their confidentiality agreements with Apple allow.

As far as Lion is concerned, I realize Apple’s marketing plans are probably set in stone. But they can be persuaded to change their ways, if customers say they need an alternative. Maybe Apple doesn’t expect to sell that many Lion upgrades to 10.5 users, and thus they don’t feel the pressure to offer a more flexible upgrade option. Certainly restricting Lion to the Mac App Store probably costs somewhat less in development dollars, since there’s no need to build a retail upgrade package and waste trees. But is that the most practical alternative? I don’t think so, but I don’t know how many of those 54 million Mac users on the planet are running Leopard and are eligible to upgrade to Lion.

None of this impacts me, since I’m using 10.6.7. At the same time, I like to think that Apple can sometimes be flexible when it comes to what’s best for Mac users. I hope you’ll agree.