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The Lion Report: Doing Without

According to published reports from both the Mac rumor sites and the mainstream media, Apple appears to have essentially wound up development of Mac OS X Lion. This is based on the claim that a Golden Master “seed” of Lion has been made available to registered developers. On the basis of those reports, you can expect to see Lion go on sale within days, or at worst, a couple of weeks.

On the other hand, nothing is certain until release day. Even if a Golden Master truly exists, problems might appear that will force a second or a third revision. Consider what happened with the iOS 4.2 release. A last-minute bug forced a 4.2.1. In saying that, assuming Apple would use a similar numbering scheme, the first official Lion release might actually be 7.0.1 if something goes wrong with that Golden Master. But I do not pretend to have any inside information.

The earliest possible release date is said to be July 6th, although a July 14th date, coinciding with the release of a new MacBook Air and other hardware refreshes, has been bandied about. But some suggest Apple wants to give Lion more time to bake before letting it free to the general public.

By the end of the day, though, is the promise of Lion sufficient to make it a must-have?

That’s a question you can only answer for yourselves, but certainly the price shouldn’t be a deterrent. Now that Apple has decreed that $29 or $30 is the proper cost for a full OS upgrade, you can expect that Lion’s successors will be in the same ballpark. There may also be obstacles that prevent you from buying a copy regardless.

The most significant obstacle might simply be the inability to conveniently download a copy. If your Internet connection is challenged, retrieving a roughly 4GB file may be out of the question. Yes, you can go to an Apple Store with your Mac portable and use their Wi-Fi connection, but can you imagine how that network is going to be slammed during the first days of Lion’s availability? Besides, what if there is no Apple retailer near you?

You also need to be running Mac OS 10.6.8 to use the compatible version of the Mac App Store. How that’s going to impact people with older Mac OS versions remains one of those serious unresolved issues. Would that downloadable installer actually operate if copied to a Mac running, say, Leopard or Tiger? Maybe Apple will just offer a higher-cost combo installer on a DVD to support millions of customers who are otherwise eligible, but cannot download or install Lion.

However, the most important question of all is whether you really need it. Apple’s not necessarily touting speed improvements, but feature improvements and changes. Having automatic saving is good, but that’s already available in third-party alternatives. Being able to save the state or version of a document is also quite useful, if you do the sort of work where it might be of benefit. Sure, it’s also nice to be able to resume your desktop’s app and document layout after a restart, but it’s not a critical must-have feature, is it?

The iOS-inspired features and eye candy might be super cool for some, though I wonder about the value of Launchpad, which mimics the app display on an iPhone or iPad, particularly when you have hundreds of apps installed, as many of you do. It may be better to just download one of the many app launching docks available as shareware, and find something with far more granular controls.

I am, however, impressed by the promise and simplicity of AirDrop, Apple’s elegant file sharing system. File sharing is a concept that is often difficult to explain to many Mac users. What’s not elegant is limiting AirDrop to a Wi-Fi connection, since such hookups are far slower than a standard gigabit Ethernet network. Well, at least the current iterations of Wi-Fi. Future versions promise far greater data transfer speeds, particularly at relatively short ranges, but that promise probably won’t be fulfilled until 2012 or later, and it will nonetheless require new Macs, and new routers to make it so.

With over 250 features to consider, there are other notable improvements worthy of a second glance. Apple appears, for example, to have paid loads of attention to Mail, though the standard interface seems merely an imitation of the one you see in the iPad version. Grouping messages by conversations sort of reminds me of how Gmail is organized. Then again, maybe I’m too retro to appreciate such “advantages,” as I prefer to handle my email the old fashioned way, but that’s just me.

The key here is that many of you may be able to survive quite nicely without Lion for the time being. If getting a copy is difficult, you’ll also have to think carefully about whether the inconvenience is worth the bother, despite the cheap price of admission.

Perhaps, as more and more applications that are fully Lion compliant are released, the upgrade to 10.7 will seem far more compelling, maybe a natural step in the scheme of things. But I’ll have more to say after Lion is available and installed on my Macs. So don’t regard this article as a downright dismissal of the possibilities of Lion. It’s got lots of potential, but it’s all about how well that potential is realized.