Lion, the new version of the software that runs Apple Inc.’s Macs, is the first personal-computer operating system for the post-PC era.
The rise of smartphones and tablets, led by Apple’s own iPhones and iPads, has done more than just eat into sales of desktops and laptops. It’s made the mouse seem obsolete by allowing us to interact with our devices and data through a touch interface rather than a pointing device. Apple introduced the mouse with the original Mac. Lion largely lays the rodent to rest.
I’ve been running the new operating system on two Macs: one of Apple’s newly revamped MacBook Air ultra-portables, on which it was pre-installed, loaned to me by the company; and as an upgrade on a recent-model iMac desktop. I’m finding it beautiful, stable and chock full of new features -- but with a significant learning curve attached.
Lion went on sale yesterday at Apple’s online store for $30, and the upgrade process is remarkably smooth. Downloading it over a cable-modem connection and installing it took me about 45 minutes. There were no product keys or serial numbers to enter and the whole thing ran pretty much on auto-pilot. One purchase entitles you to install Lion on every Mac you own.
In addition to the online version, Apple next month will start selling Lion on a USB drive for $69.
Taps and Swipes
Getting the most out of Lion requires learning a bunch of unfamiliar gestures, taps and swipes. Take for example the simple act of scrolling down a Web page. The first thing you’ll notice about the scroll bar is, there isn’t one. It only appears when you put two fingers on the touch pad (if you’re using a laptop) or the touch-sensitive Magic Mouse that comes with the iMac. Then, instead of pulling the slider to move down the page, you move your fingers up, much as you’d do on an iPad.
While there’s a certain logic to the new interface, old habits are hard to break, and I frequently found myself needing time to figure out how to accomplish what I wanted.
Adding to the difficulty was that some of the gestures were different depending on whether I was using the touchpad or the mouse. It isn’t a problem if you only work on one or the other, but it’ll be a long time before I automatically know when to use a “three-finger upward swipe” rather than a “two-finger double-tap.”
If the new user interface is the most obvious change in Lion, it’s only one of what Apple says are 250 new features. You’ll notice a couple of the most important in the form of new icons that appear in the dock at the bottom of your screen.
One is called Launchpad. It serves as a home base for the applications you’ve installed on your Mac. Your programs appear as icons, much as they do on an iPad, and you can add, delete and rearrange them at will. I found it especially useful because I tend to junk up my desktop with random files, folders and icons. Launchpad helped me cut through the clutter.
The other new icon launches Mission Control, Apple’s latest effort to provide you with a bird’s-eye view of everything active on your computer: open windows, dashboard widgets, multiple desktops. In earlier versions of its operating system, Apple tried something like this with a feature called Expose that I never much cared for. Mission Control is a considerable improvement.
The need for a better tool to keep track of everything is even more important with Lion’s emphasis on running apps that take up the entire screen. In full-screen mode, the dock and menu bar disappear, though you can summon the latter by moving your cursor to the top of the screen. With Lion, you can have several full-screen apps running at once, swiping your fingers to navigate between them.
For all the big changes in Lion, I actually found some of the smaller ones to be among the most enjoyable. For instance, a new feature called AirDrop makes it absurdly easy for nearby Macs to wirelessly exchange files, no Wi-Fi network required. That one alone could put a dent in thumb-drive sales.
Other nice touches: When you open a program or restart your system, Lion automatically takes you right back to where you left off. Programs written for the new OS will be able to automatically save your work, and let you retrieve earlier versions. The Mail program has been intelligently redesigned, with a new conversation view that threads lengthy chains of correspondence for easier reading. All in all, it’s a lot for $30.
Ultimately, how readily you embrace Lion will depend on your tolerance for change. Me, I’ve reached my conclusion: Change is good.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)