How OS X Lion Leads to the Next Computing Revolution

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The much-anticipated MacBook Pro refresh came today, to a somewhat mixed reception, but I suspect the real story today is the product being overshadowed by that shiny new unibody hardware. Mac OS X Lion, version 10.7 of Apple’s venerable operating system, has been released to developers.

Like the MacBooks, Lion is, in many ways, an evolutionary step for the operating system. Cast your eyes down the list of new features on Apple’s dedicated Lion web pages and it’s easy — at first blush — to be dismissive. Sure, fullscreen apps might be nice (particularly on the smaller screen of the MacBook Air) and features like Versions and Auto Save are a nice addition, but let’s be honest; they’re not going to set the tech world on fire.

But then I had a new thought: Apple is always telling us, year after year, that more than half of all new Macs are sold to first-time Mac buyers. And for more and more of those consumers, the thing that brought them to the platform is iOS. Whether it’s the iPhone or an iPad flavor, iOS is something of a gateway drug to the world of Apple technology.

With so many iOS-fluent users buying Macs for the first time, it makes perfect sense that Apple wants Mac OS X to feel equally familiar and comfortable to first-time buyers. After all, you don’t get a second chance at a first impression.

Simple Things

Making the Mac feel like an extension of the iOS experience doesn’t necessarily require obvious and dramatic changes; simple things can make all the difference. Look at the way Apple is bringing gestures and animations to the Mac. We’ve seen all of this before, right there in iOS. Some Mac stalwarts might declare the animations ‘eye candy’ — while iOS users will consider them an absolutely essential part of the experience.

The same is true of Lion’s Auto Save feature; a system-wide automatic document save feature that absolves the user from ever having to remember to save anything (pending developer cooperation).

Isn’t this precisely the same experience users have in iOS? Even after 30 years, the traditional file system is still a challenge for many people to understand. One of the great successes of iOS is that it does away with the File System. And while Auto Save isn’t the same as an invisible File System, combined with the iOS-inspired app model we know is headed to at least Apple’s own software with Lion, it’s definitely a step in that direction.

iOS-style multitasking is also coming to the Mac with Lion. Consider the following juicy morsel from AppleInsider’s Neil Hughes, describing the new Resume feature in 10.7:

After a restart, Lion automatically relaunches applications that were open when the user chose Log Out or Shut Down. The system also automatically restores the state of applications […] after a restart, including the size and location of a window, selections and contents.

Mac OS X may terminate an application behind the scenes when it goes unused or has no open windows. The application usually relaunches instantly when the user accesses it again.

Users can still choose to manually quit an application, but Apple has reportedly told developers that quitting is no longer necessary.

In fact, it seems that open apps no longer even display a glowing dot underneath them in the dock, a clear indication that Apple isn’t thinking about desktop apps in the way we traditionally have.

Now think about how your iPad or iPhone behaves; the best apps not only remember what you were doing the last time you used them, but are right there, in memory, waiting to be used even after a full system restart.

Trucks

Back in June 2010, at the D8 Conference, Steve Jobs said;

“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm… PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people.”

I look now at the flexibility of iOS, and how it’s shaping user expectations of how consumer electronics should work. I also look at how dramatically iOS is shaping the next iteration of the Mac operating system and I can’t help but think that, rather than drawing a clear line in the sand between desktop “trucks” and iOS “cars,” Apple is trying to make the line between the two far less distinct.

The trucks will get more streamlined, nimble and sporty (the Mac App Store and MacBook Air were the first steps in that direction — Lion takes us ever closer) while “simpler” iOS devices will inevitably grow and evolve until, beneath their slimline shells, they possess engines at least as powerful as any truck available today.

I know I’m taxing that analogy, but you get my point. Apple isn’t committed to ease-of-use at the expense of raw power; nor are they committed to ramping up power at the expense of awesome — and refreshingly simple — user experiences.

Do you want to know where Apple is taking us in the next five years? Then take a good hard look at Lion — the clues are there for all to see. Mac OS X 10.7 might appear to be evolutionary, but, like the new hardware it unveiled today, it’s setting the stage for the real revolution to come.

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