Apple's Back to the Mac event on Wednesday was preceded by plenty of speculation. Some of it was dead on -- such as predictions of revamped MacBook Air models -- while some of it missed the mark a bit: Apple didn't unveil a touch-screen iMac (in fact, CEO Steve Jobs referred to the idea as "ergonomically horrible") and, while FaceTime is coming to the Mac, it is as a standalone application, not as part of iChat.
Without a doubt, the biggest news was the preview of the next version of Mac OS X, known as Lion (which leaves very few big cats left for future releases). There has been speculation for months that Apple might begin bundling iOS features into the Mac; some even suggested that Apple would replace Mac OS X with iOS. While the latter certainly didn't happen, we learned yesterday that Lion will incorporate some key iOS functionality, for better or worse.
Let's dig into what Lion may mean for Mac users going forward.
Enter the Lion
The big news, of course, was Mac OS X 10.7, a.k.a. Lion. Slated for a release next summer, Apple's preview of its new desktop OS focused mostly on features borrowed from the company's iOS devices:
- More advanced use of multi-touch gestures
- A Mac App Store
- The ability for apps to auto-save work and auto-resume to their last-used point when relaunched
- Apps that operate in full-screen mode rather than in windows
- A feature called Launchpad with functionality similar to an iPad's home screen
- A feature called Mission Control that combines elements of Exposé, Dashboard, Spaces and full-screen apps
Judging from tweets sent during the event, I'm not the only one who had some misgivings when Jobs said that part of the meaning of "Back to the Mac" was bringing iOS components into Mac OS X. The rest of the demo left me feeling somewhat confident that Apple is doing this in a smart way, although I'll hold off any further endorsement until I can spend some serious time with these features.
Apple believes that users don't want to interact with their desktop and notebook computers via a touch-screen as they do an iPhone. It's not ergonomic, Jobs said, and most desktop applications are simply not built for that kind of input.
Instead, the company is focusing on the multi-touch interfaces it already makes for Macs: the larger glass trackpad in MacBooks, the year-old Magic Mouse that blends a touch interface with a traditional computer mouse, and the more recent Magic Trackpad. I think this makes a lot of sense; Apple's proven that it can incorporate multi-touch effectively using these types of devices.
My concern is that multi-touch gestures (as well as some of the other interface changes planned for Lion, which I'll get to shortly) may seem overly complicated to new Mac users. If the new users come with experience using an iPhone or iPad, they shouldn't have problems, but I'm worried about less tech-savvy individuals who buy a Mac thinking it's just easier than Windows (and who can blame them, given that this has been Apple's marketing stance for some time now?). Admittedly, Apple's retail stores are great at user education and may be able to absorb some of the challenge.
I'm also concerned how multi-touch gestures will play out with users who prefer non-Apple input devices, as well as for those who use older MacBooks that don't include the current large multi-touch trackpad. (Apple continued to sell such notebooks into 2009.) If significant multi-touch features in Lion won't be supported on these systems, it could certainly add fuel to the fire for those who complain that Apple creates closed ecosystems that force upgrades.
The Mac App Store
Like the existing App Store for iOS devices, Apple's announced Mac App Store will offer one-click downloads and installation, and licensing will apply to all Macs that a user owns (though I can't help but wonder if there will be a limit). Developers whose software is sold through the Mac App Store will receive the same 70/30 revenue split as with the iOS App Store. Although touted as a feature of Lion, Apple has promised that the Mac App Store will launch within 90 days.
It isn't surprising that Apple would choose to introduce the App Store concept for Mac software. The model has done well for Apple, and the company borrowed from it in designing its Safari Extensions Gallery. Apple has also maintained a library of information about Mac software on its Web site for years now.
This model makes sense for end users too because it simplifies the purchase and installation process: No waiting for a store to open or a package to be delivered, and no relying on installation media or having to delete .DMG files (the most common download format for Mac software) after installation. It also makes it a lot easier to maintain updates.
The Mac App Store may also help smaller developers get noticed. It's hard not to assume Apple has been planning the Mac App Store for quite some time and that it was part of the reason for dropping the price on the Mac developer program membership.
On the plus side, the Mac App Store will not be the only option for finding and purchasing Mac software. I think this was one of the biggest concerns that Mac users and developers might have had over the concept. Downloads from the Web and traditional installation media will remain supported. From the demo today, it looks as if both iPad-style full-screen apps as well as more traditional applications will be supported.
There are, however, a couple of major concerns that I have about introducing this model:
Will users be forced to upgrade or be able to downgrade applications? This is a problem with the iOS App Store. Once an update is downloaded/installed, it can't be reverted to an earlier release, as you can if you have the install media or original installer files of a desktop application. Several iOS app updates have introduced bugs or performance problems; when this occurs, there's no option but to wait for a developer to fix it. With the more complex environment of full-fledged computers with specific configurations and peripherals, testing for across-the-board compatibility would be largely impossible.