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Did Apple Release Lion Too Early?

I suppose this is the sort of uncertain question that many ask in one form or another whenever Apple or Microsoft releases a major OS upgrade. Early so-called “version one-point-zero” bugs appear, one or two quick updates are released, and you have to wonder whether they might have done better to wait rather than rush the product out.

Now Microsoft released Windows XP and Windows 7 in the fall. The troubled Windows Vista came out in January 2007, missing the holiday season. But it’s also true that lots of PC users decided to miss Vista completely, so they stayed on with XP. Only after the arrival of Windows 7, in October, 2009, did millions of customers finally decide to upgrade to a newer version of Windows, when they weren’t switching to Macs of course.

With Lion, Apple has changed the mold. Unlike previous versions of OS X, most Mac users are expected to download their copies from the Mac App Store, for $29.99. For those who prefer physical media, there is a USB thumb drive version for $69.99, but that price penalty makes it quite clear what Apple expects you to do; that is, if you have a broadband Internet connection or a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot to download your copy.

But the methodology of delivering Lion isn’t the problem. It’s the persistent bugs reported in the initial 10.7 release that trouble a number of Mac users. Some even claim Lion is Apple’s Vista, a major OS upgrade that breaks the mold but is fated to be troublesome because it wasn’t fully baked before release.

First and foremost, I do not regard OS X Lion is necessarily buggier than other OS X upgrades. They all had early-release flaws of one degree or another. It makes sense there will be problems because of all the serious changes in Lion. At the same time, I have little doubt that Apple is going to straighten out the worst ills in the months to come.

Apple also made some critical decisions about Lion and support for older Macs and older software. Some of the early Intel-based Macs, with Core Solo and Core Duo processors, aren’t supported. But that leaves nearly five years of Macs that can run Lion, though some will require an update to at least 2GB RAM. But Apple’s decision to ditch the Rosetta PowerPC emulation software has been a cause of criticism and obvious problems. Many older apps won’t run. There’s not a lick of evidence that Apple would reconsider and develop a version of Rosetta for Lion, or license the technology to a third party. When Apple makes the decision to discard technology that, as they say, is that.

Certainly, Lion had some problems out of the starting gate. The OS 10.7.1 update fixed reported issues with Wi-Fi, the usual inconsistent connections sort of thing. But I still have a different sort of problem, probably related, to report. Just about once a week, I lose Internet access. It only happens on my 27-inch iMac. No other Internet connected device has this trouble, and that includes a Lexmark S800 Genesis printer, iPad 2, iPhone 4, Apple TV, and even the home alarm system. No problems. My iMac was perfectly well behaved prior to installing Lion; never lost the connection. Restarting the router, a Linksys E4200, or the Cox cable modem, made by Cisco, doesn’t change a thing. If I restart the iMac, it just works all over again — until the next failure.

As a corollary, I’ve had occasional problems with streaming TV shows from Netflix on that iMac. I get a “plugin” error, but it may well be that it’s a Netflix issue, one you have to hope they’ll solve this month as millions of customers have to decide whether to accept huge price increases, downgrade services, or look elsewhere. I’ll probably keep the streaming for now.

Otherwise, Lion has performed like a champ. I see no serious performance problems. Even apps that aren’t particularly Lion savvy seem to be relatively well behaved, though some software, such as Word 2011 and the latest Adobe InDesign, seem to take forever to quit.

Now one particularly irritating Lion bug, reported by some, involves reports of random crashes that produce a black screen. Reports trace this problem to the NVIDIA graphics hardware on some 2010 MacBook Pros. There are also reports of poor battery life. Now as the owner of a 17-inch MacBook Pro of that vintage, I have to tell you that I haven’t encountered any graphics oddities, black screens of death, or poor battery life.

As usual with such issues, some problems may be restricted to specific applications or installation scenarios. That makes it doubly difficult for Apple to actually isolate problems of this sort prior to the release date. The final beta testers will always be the early adopters, and that situation is no different with Lion.

Despite some of the complaints, I do not see Lion as being necessarily less stable than other versions of OS X. But there’s nothing wrong with waiting out a few maintenance updates before diving on.