Apple Tries to Get All Touchy Feely With OS X Lion

Apple has unleashed OS X Lion on the world. I’m sure this weekend will see lots of folks choosing to upgrade for the $29 price. Now that Apple has christened the age we’re in as the post-PC age, you have to look at what Lion brings to the table in that context, and many already have. I’ve performed the upgrade on both the latest models of the iMac and a MacBook Pro 13 inch and am going to share a few thoughts about my early going with the new OS in this post. I want to put the emphasis on “early going.” As I’ve learned over the years when it comes to a new OS for any device, all that looks good (or bad) on first install looks much different once you’ve been working with it for a few months or so.

Some Context

It’s been obvious to me since Apple introduced Cover Flow to iTunes that touch was a big part of Steve Jobs’ plans for the future. Attempts (mostly unsuccessful in my view) at adding multi-touch to a mouse, and bringing the Magic Trackpad to market (more successful in my view), and adding gesture support to Macbook Trackpads again pointed a way to what Cupertino was thinking. Obviously the iPhone and the iPad pushed those plans along. The fact that recent earnings reports show that the iPhone is a whopping part of Apple’s revenue and that the iPad is cannibalizing Mac sales, reinforces to a large degree the shift we’re all participating in. We aren’t in that post-PC world yet, but we’re heading there and there is no question that OS X Lion is the first step in building a bridge to some future that merges iOS and Apple’s “truck” OS. (Steve Jobs famously compared the computers we’ve know for years to “trucks,” saying there will always be a need for them but we’re moving on to something else.) Will that mean touch screens on laptops (the Air, the MacBook Pro) or desktops? Somehow I just don’t think so. The ergonomics just don’t work that well and I can’t imagine Apple’s designers heading down that path. I could be wrong though.

All of that said, that bridge is visually most evident in the very iOS-like LaunchPad that displays applications across your screen in the same way that Apps appear on an iPad or iPhone. Behind the scenes, but just as important, is the way you get a copy of OS X Lion, through a Mac App Store purchase and download (although a USB key with Lion pre-installed will be available next month for $69.) Of course you could also purchase a computer with it installed. Both the LaunchPad and the install method point to where Apple wants us to go. Let’s get rid of boxed software. Let’s keep things in a very controlled environment via distribution. And, let’s start to forget a bit about the importance of keyboards and mice in favor of touch.

Touch and Gestures

As some one who has been experimenting and testing out touch based devices for some time, I certainly have to applaud Apple on how it has merged the hardware and software components to make that work on iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch. Apple has taken the vision that Bill Gates outlined and delivered it better than anyone else so far. At least on mobile devices. That said, I’m not quite sure our minds, or more specifically our mind/hand coordination is quite ready for where Apple wants us to go when it comes to laptops and desktops.

First up, you really need a trackpad to take advantage of the gesture based controls in Lion. Though admittedly in early testing, I tried some of the gesture controls with a Magic Mouse and quickly turned it off and put it in a drawer, probably never to be seen again. It’s obvious to me that Apple doesn’t want us to use a mouse anymore. End of story. I’ve used the the Magic Trackpad to explore further on the desktop and obviously the embedded trackpad on the MacBook Pro. In early testing the multi-touch gesture controls feel more natural on a MacBook Pro’s trackpad than they do on a Magic Trackpad. There is retraining involved in both cases and more so with the desktop than the laptop.

Some of the gestures just feel natural. As an example a three finger swipe left or right moves you between what used to be called Spaces but are now called desktops. This feels right. Others don’t feel right. Apple’s insistence on changing everything we’ve come to learn about scrolling is another matter. To my mind it is like trying to figure out a new water turn on/off control for a sink, now that most of them are single handles. Your brain doesn’t get the left/right hot/cold part of that in a clean way. At least mine doesn’t.

Apple calls this Natural Scrolling and indeed that makes some great sense on a Tablet or a phone where you feel like you are directly using your fingers to move the data in the same way you might push papers around your desk. The spatial differences between doing this on a Tablet and a laptop are great. That’s great as in a great divide. They are greater still when you compare a Tablet to a desktop. Fortunately Apple included a switch to turn this off and I’m guessing many will. I’m going to keep giving it a try for awhile to see how I adjust, but I have to admit I’m not having a good time in this early testing period. (I posted about this here.) This may be one leap too far for many on Apple’s part and I think it has more to do with how we’ve grown accustomed to our workspaces and our relationships to our manual input devices than anything else. The next generation of computer users (assuming we call these things computers by the time they start blogging about it) will prove that right or wrong.

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One thing to note, don’t catch yourself like I did if you have multiple Apple products to update. Going back and forth between one system that is using Natural Scrolling and one that isn’t will drive you a bit insane. That raises the question about what folks who go back and forth between Windows and Mac systems will do. I’m guessing turn off Natural Scrolling. I’ve also heard that folks who use a Wacom Tablet (for drawing not Tablets as in iPad) have a choice to make as things are reversed when you use a pen on those Tablets in a way that doesn’t make any sense. At least, that appears to be the case until Wacom updates things.

The other multi-touch gestures also require some training. After getting accustomed to some of them I can envision using, I will admit I couldn’t remember them all this morning when I came back to try them out. I can see where Apple is headed with all of this (I think) and I think we’re looking at a several year adoption cycle in terms of most users. That’s speculation on my part, but we’ve all been accustomed to doing things one way for 25 years or longer. It’s going to take some serious adjustments for most of us, but there will be a new generation that won’t think twice about this.

Semiotics of the New Delivery System

Say what you want about the new download process for Lion, but from a perspective of semiotics there’s something interesting going on. We’ve all been long accustomed to installing a new OS. Remember all the fuss there would be about packaging? Think of the money spent deciding on what that would be. Think about all the snarky comments about how good or bad the packaging for new software was. That’s now ancient history in Apple’s eyes. Not only is there no packaging, but that entire Out of the Box Experience is gone. First you have no package to open. It’s a download and the only tangible visual thrill you get is watching the little icon jump from the App Store to your dock. (You are at the mercy of your Internet Connection there, so it could be awhile.) Then once the install completes, your computer comes back, well… looking just about like it did when you left it. No welcome video. No new music. No nothing. Except for a couple of new icons for Mission Control and LaunchPad. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I found it oddly disconcerting. Of course that makes sense when you think of all the bits and bytes that would have to be downloaded if those things were there.

But it also points to what I’m guessing is a more than subtle move away from the days of big OS releases to an age when things become more and more incremental. Big releases were all the rage in the PC days, but not in the post-PC era. Although, we are doing this on desktops and laptops. No, those are trucks. I keep having to remind myself about that. Hmmm?

All of that said, the download and install process went just fine on two machines in my case. One thing to note here. I’m sure you’ve read that there is an unsupported way to burn a copy of the install package to a DVD or USB drive. Make sure you do this after the download and before you go forward with the install. The install package is erased in the cleanup after the process is completed and you’ll be out of luck if you were headed down this path.

Other New Features

Appls touts 250 new features for Lion. I’ll just comment on a few here given my limited time so far.

LaunchPad: Think of an iOS App layout on your screen. I don’t think it has the desired effect personally and looks odd. I also think it will mean a lot of folks will start poking at their screens to launch Apps the way they do on iPads resulting in a bonanza for those who sell screen cleaning products. Again, I don’t see Apple’s designers liking the ideas of touch screens on laptops and desktops. It just doesn’t make sense.

Mission Control: Apple rolled Spaces, the Dashboard and Expose into Mission Control. In my view it makes a lot of sense on a laptop and less onĀ  a desktop. I used Spaces infrequently but did use it when I was working on some large projects on my MacBook Pro. It helped keep the screen uncluttered. Given Apple’s push to use full screen Apps (which surprisingly I find I’m liking) and the fact that each full screen App creates its own space, it makes quite a bit of sense to swipe left or right to move between Apps on what are now called Desktop screens. On a larger screened desktop this makes some sense but if you’re using two monitors like I am, it seems like it isn’t as much of an aid as it is a convenience or a curiosity.

Full Screen Apps: Again, I’m liking this more than I thought I would in early testing. It definitely evokes the iPad’s one window onto your data approach. On a MacBook Pro it makes logical sense. On a desktop, it does help clear the clutter out of the way, but there are very few Apps that I have tested that don’t feel like the full screen mode is an overkill method to move things out of the way.

Resume, Autosave and Versions: I like these featuresĀ  quite a bit. OS X Lion now saves different versions, or states, of documents you’re creating. Developers will have to update their Apps to take advantage of this, but I can see this helping me in a very powerful way. Resume saves the state of an App automatically even reopening it to the last saved state after a reboot. If you go to shut down or restart your system you’re asked if you want to reopen Apps on the reboot. If the shut down was inadvertent (say a power outage) you’re asked that question once you reboot. If you don’t make say yeah or nay after a short interval all your Apps reopen to their last saved state including window position, size, etc… Autosave is built into the OS as a new strategy for saving documents you’ve created. If you have unsaved changes the OS will save those for you and the append “Edited” to the title. You access your different versions of a document by selecting “view all versions” and you then see the current document alongside saved versions of your work so you can revert back if you need to. Again, we’ll have to see some Apps make some changes before this becomes available across more than Apple’s Apps.

AirDrop: Dead simple and spot on. If you’ve got other Lion based machines around you and there’s WiFi in the air you can “drop” a file to another user or computer. You drop files onto another user’s icon. That user has to accept the file (so I guess you can’t just go bomb them with inappropriate stuff). The file ends up in the user’s Downloads directory. This is all done peer-to-peer so there’s no need to be connected via the same router or hotspot. I do believe I read somewhere that there is a 30 ft proximity limit though. But this just works. I will be disappointed if Apple doesn’t incorporate AirDrop into iOS as I think it makes perfect sense for a way to transfer files back and forth between iOS devices and “trucks.”

Windows: I have had zero issues using Windows via Parallels and Boot Camp since the install. Make sure you have Parallels updated though if you use that Virtual Machine solution. My MacBook Pro 13 is still the best Windows machine I’ve ever used.

Summary

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Should you upgrade? Is this the future? Is this earth shaking? Yes. Yes, but we’re not there yet. And, probably not. Apple and Steve Jobs want us to go to a post-PC world where we can touch and manipulate our data free from some of the encumbrances that have become all too familiar extensions of our extremities. They also want us to think differently about how we work and play. Apple has always proven that they are willing to jettison the old if they think they are on to something new. Lion points to some of that but is probably just another step more than it is a leap. I think we’re all in for some interesting discoveries as Lion begins propagating beyond the early reviewers and first to jump gadget freaks. Let me also say this, I had my doubts about the download and install process. But from my experience it went flawlessly and was one of the smoothest upgrades to a new OS that I’ve ever experienced. If that’s a harbinger of things to come, I say that’s welcome.

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