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Summary:

Sometime next week we could see the arrival of Mac OS X Lion, according to reports. But this is no ordinary major software launch. The twist is that Lion will only be distributed digitally, the effect of which is difficult to predict.

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Sometime next week, most likely July 14, we could see the anticipated arrival of Mac OS X Lion, according to multiple reports. But this is no ordinary major software launch. The twist is that Lion will be distributed digitally, the first version of OS X ever for which that is true. Not only that; it will only be available as a download from the Mac App Store, and that’s why this is the launch everyone will be watching with bated breath.

Ready to ditch discs?

Apple is putting a lot of faith in the fact that its customers are ready to leave physical install media behind, and instead wholly embrace a digital distribution model. That’s the whole idea behind the Mac App Store, of course, and it has worked out very well for mobile software with the original App Store for iOS devices. But will Mac users be willing to take it to the next level, and welcome digital delivery even for that most essential software component, the core desktop operating system?

Our recent poll on the subject indicates that many will be upgrading, and that most will do so as soon as the 10.7 update becomes available. Only a tiny 3.4 percent of all those surveyed didn’t plan on upgrading at all. Those results favor Apple’s decision pretty highly, but they also probably aren’t a terribly accurate representation of the population at large, since our readership here at GigaOM tends to lean toward the early adopter end of the spectrum.

The old barriers, and some new ones

Typically, new operating systems are greeted cautiously by consumers. For example, take a look at the chart below, taken from a Net Applications report on OS market share in May. It shows the trajectory of Apple’s last few major OS updates, and you can see that adoption of each tends to start relatively slow and grow steadily over their lifetime. People can be hesitant about major OS changes, since it’s the software they depend on most heavily, and unfamiliarities necessitate an adjustment period some would rather not deal with. But Apple may be setting itself up for a lower than normal initial pool of upgraders, because Lion is digital-only, and because it requires 10.6.8, the most recent update, to be installed.

Because OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard is already so well represented among OS X users, it’s good for Lion’s prospects. Installing Lion requires the Mac App Store, which is only available for Macs using Snow Leopard, but a good number of Macs should fall into the category of those technically able to upgrade.

We’ve also talked about the risk Apple is taking with regard to customers who may have poor Internet connections, or severely restricted bandwidth allowances for their home connections. Some reports suggest Apple might get around that for some notebook users by offering Apple Store wireless as a means to download the update, but that’s not a practical solution for everyone.

Digital supply and demand

Apple has also had hiccups with major digital software launches in the past. Download speeds have been slow for past iPhone OS (now known as iOS) launches, and in some cases demand brought Apple servers down for extended periods. Apple now has a new data center facility which should help alleviate the strain, but at around 4 GB per copy, Lion stands a chance of causing a strain on the Mac App Store servers as early adopters rush to grab it.

The Lion launch, whether it comes next week as rumored or later on, could represent a major turning point in how we approach software distribution. But there’s also a small chance that it could turn out to be a moment when consumers say “we’re not ready for this just yet,” sort of like what pro users have been saying about Final Cut Pro X. Which way do you think the wind will blow?

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  1. Call me old fashioned, but just give it to me on a disk!…

    1. Ok that will be just under 1500 3.5 inch floppies!

    2. You’re not old fashioned. Those peddling movies are finding that when a disc is not involved when a movie is being sold, the buyer is more apprehensive to buy other than rent. There is an inbred comfort of when one owns something to have a material version of it that they can touch. Back a hundred years ago, I was Apples first test subject at a remote location to DL a “large sized” update over the “Internet”. I had SprintION at the time and had been doing business with Apple that made them aware that I had a 10/10 SDSL connection that was mostly unheard of and now. I was asked to DL the update, install and report back. Well the “80 Meg” file, which was considered huge and very news worthy DL’d in 20 seconds. I had to do it several times just to make sure I was actually seeing what I was. Zipped that sucker right in and it installed like a dream. These days 80 megs is smaller than a human hair. Especially with what I ship around daily. The main snag is the ISP’s and their caps. That’s the big hitch that the ISP’s will capitalize on and I see being the road block that will be an issue for many.

      Plus I have no faith in cloud computing what with all the hacking and theft going on especially at Apple (iTunes). I have my servers that are backed up to disc and those discs (Blu-ray RW) are stored in a vault. Can’t do that with a third party cloud. PLUS, I am severely uncomfortable once again being told that this is the way things WILL be done. The first time was Adobe and PDF’s. They nearly completely cut their throats until they pulled back, regrouped and launched, two years later, in a completely less intimidating manner. Now PDF’s are a daily norm and even I prefer using them. Even as apposed as I was (am) to Adobe.

  2. Aidan Clarke Friday, July 8, 2011

    The developer seeds all install quickly and painlessly. The process is not much different from getting a point update, and I do not see why it has to be. Sure, the infrastructure may not be 100% perfect for digital only yet, but since we now do 300 MB – 400 MB downloads relatively frequently, I don’t see why 3 GB – 4 GB downloads should not be mainstream in a couple of years. Apple is just pre-empting the field on this a little, as it did with floppies, for instance.

    1. “Sure, the infrastructure may not be 100% perfect for digital only yet, but since we now do 300 MB – 400 MB downloads relatively frequently, I don’t see why 3 GB – 4 GB downloads should not be mainstream in a couple of years.”

      Then I am guessing that a large number of people will upgrade when the infrastructure is bit closer to 100% perfect. In the mean time, I live in the present, and with the internet services available available to me, I do not do do 300 MB – 400 MB downloads relatively frequently. I am happy that you have affordable, high-speed internet service, but not everybody is in the same boat as you. And I would venture to guess that I am certainly not alone, but we will see shortly when Apple releases the upgrade.

      –Ken

  3. Apple did just deploy that HUGE data center in NC. I’m confident that it will go ‘fairly’ smoothly!

    -Chris
    http://friendsofmac.net

  4. I’ve been doing this for the past few years with my desktop OS Ubuntu. Granted, I still have the opportunity to burn the ISO images to disks for emergencies; not sure if this is applicable in Apple’s case; but the whole idea (download your OS) isn’t so scary to me.

    1. You and millions of others. The difference is we use BitTorrent most of the time so it is relatively painless to distribute large files especially on launch day. Let me guess, St. Jobs will discover BitTorrent and bless the Apple sheep with tHis innovation… eventually.

  5. how will re-install’s be performed on mac that ship with lion? for example after replacing a failed hard drive?

    1. I’m assuming you’d have to install Snow Leopard and then either upgrade or restore from backup. Presumably Lion install discs will still come with new computers so anyone in that camp can use such discs.

  6. What about those Mac owners that are still running an OS below 10.6? Would we have to upgrade to Snow Leopard and then to Lion?

  7. Perhaps a bit off topic . . .
    The lack of Rosetta support has just rendered Lion unacceptable to four users I know of.

    1. Andrew Gormley tz Friday, July 8, 2011

      I’m curious to know which apps they’re hanging on to that haven’t received an upgrade from PPC yet. I know Quicken 2007 keeps coming up, but frankly there are so many excellent replacements both online, like Freshbooks, and native that I’m curious if other apps holding people back have equal or superior alternatives as well.

      1. Would Rosetta support affect universal applications? I have quite a few games that are universal. Maybe I should run mac keeper on them…..

  8. Apple is Going to do without my three computers until I can get Lion without downloading or driving 250 miles round trip to an Apple store.

    What the hell were they thinking? and never mind the smart remarks about the future. we are living in the present and sloooow downloads are a fact of life.

    1. Andrew Gormley Ed Friday, July 8, 2011

      Without condescension, where do you live that download speeds are so slow? Assuming you have something better than dial up, what would the issue be with just letting your computer run overnight while it downloads? The App Store also allows you to pause and resume downloads, so even if it took a few days you could just pause the download during the day and let it run at night. Just a thought.

      1. I am not sure of what services are available where you live, but for many of us, internet services are slow and/or expensive. I live in a major city and my phone company just introduced broadband DSL in my neighborhood only a few weeks ago. And it is not cheap.

        Besides, do I really want to tie up my internet connection for “a few days”, only to wonder if I need to start over if the download “goes south”. Really, how hard is it to make the download available on a flash drive?

        –Ken

      2. I can only wonder where these people live also. I live in a small town in a third-world county with 6GB internet. I used to live in rural US where getting something beyond dialup was a challenge, but that was in the last century. If you guys are only now getting DSL, well, that’s a crime and a shame.

        The bad news for you is that Lion doesn’t support dial-up modems, so if you’re looking/needing to hang on to the past then Lion is not for you. But if you really want Lion and really don’t have reliable internet access I can only imagine that Lion disks will be available on eBay for purchase.

      3. In New Zealand we have a okay broadband network with ADSL2 common throughout the country, but the most popular broadband plan is the Telecom GO 3GB Plan, so you can see if most people in NZ were to download Lion it would take them 2 months and the first month their connection would go down to dialup speeds after the first 3GB. We also have no Apple stores with free wireless so that isn’t a option either.

  9. Milo Curtis Friday, July 8, 2011

    Old Way: Driving + parking + the Mall + the line + the leaving the mall + running other errands my wife asked me to do while I was out = this better be worth it
    New Way: Click App Store + [maybe] wait for the download a bit while I do other things = yeah, I’m down with that.

  10. Apple isn’t simply taking a risk by claiming that digital downloads will be the only way to get Lion. They’re showing a gross indifference to the circumstances where many of their customers live. That’s not surprising. Virtually all of Apple works in one Silicon Valley town. They eat at the same restaurants and on hot days take their kids to the same pools. You can’t get less culturally and geographically diverse than that.

    And no, this isn’t the issue with me. I’d be grabbing Lion on the first day via broadband. I’ve got a new flash drive for my MacBook that I’m waiting to format in Lion. But I have friends that live in rural areas served only by phone lines or flaky, slow, and pricey cellular services. Telling them to drive someplace with faster service is ridiculous. Why sell Lion for $30 and then make installing it cost $50-100 in cash and time wasted. That makes no sense.

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