Apple today previewed Lion, the next major version of Mac OS X, which will feature iPad-like multi-touch gestures and be sold for just $29.99 on the Mac App Store.
The low price is the same as Apple charged for Snow Leopard, the current version, but Apple had charged $129 for most previous major releases of Mac OS X. The big difference this time is it will be sold through the Mac App Store as a 4GB download, rather than on a disc.
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The distribution method raises a few questions. How will users who never upgraded to Snow Leopard, and therefore don't have access to the Mac App Store, download the new operating system? What about people with slow Internet connections? Will there be a convenient way to create bootable USB drives or discs for people who prefer a physical copy of their OS?
For businesses that deploy Macs, there is another issue. Typically, users purchase software through the App Store with their personal credit cards. One of our own IT guys at IDG is wondering how businesses that buy in bulk for employees will handle the purchase process.
The latest developer preview of Lion, which is Mac OS X version 10.7, is out today and will be generally available to consumers in July. Another major change this time around is that Apple is making Lion Server a part of the desktop operating system, potentially bringing server capabilities to the masses.
While Apple says "Lion Server is now part of Mac OS X Lion," it's still possible that the server capabilities will cost extra. Some reports have the Lion Server OS being priced as a $49.99 add-on. In any case, it certainly won't cost $500, as the Snow Leopard Server does.
There was no live video of today's Apple keynote, which featured Steve Jobs and other executives, so I relied mainly on the Macworld live blog from the event for real-time information.
As far as I can tell, Apple didn't mention anything about security, even though Macs are starting to experience some of the same problems that plague Windows computers.
But the new features in Mac OS X look pretty enticing. We already knew much about what would be included in Lion as a result of a preview given several months back, but today's presentation went into more detail.
You won't be able to manipulate your Mac by touching the screen, but the same multi-touch gestures that power the iPad will be incorporated into the Mac Trackpad.
Scroll bars will become unnecessary for users who embrace the new gestures, such as tap-to-zoom, and two-finger swiping to move back and forward in the browser.
Lion will make greater use of full-screen applications but also add a "Mission Control" feature that helps users keep running applications organized and move quickly from one to the other.
The multi-tasking in Lion is actually more similar to that provided by Android tablets and the BlackBerry Playbook than the iPad, the current version of which prevents you from viewing more than one application at once.
With a three-finger swipe in Lion, you enter Mission Control, which shows your open applications and widgets, and views of multiple workspaces, each of which can contain several applications.
Overall, there are more than 250 new features in Lion. One long-awaited feature is auto-save, which, of course, automatically saves the work you do in word processors and other applications. Auto-save will even save all the versions of your document, letting you go back to previous versions.
One thing I wonder, as a Mac user who saves documents in Microsoft Office format, is whether the auto-save will work with Microsoft-compatible documents. Currently, the Apple Pages word processor requires an extra step for saving documents in Microsoft Word format.
More new features in Lion include AirDrop, a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi based system for sharing files among computers. Airdrop will be integrated into the Finder, and works as an encrypted, ad hoc file transfer system without any complicated setup.
Mac Mail is also getting an overhaul, with improved search, a two- or three-column interface, and a Gmail-like conversation view.
Other new features: A Windows migration tool and FaceTime.
While you can still install software onto Macs from a variety of sources, just like you can with Windows, Apple is pushing the Mac App Store as the new hub for software downloads. Updates will be easier, because you'll only have to download the additional code rather than the whole application, and a sandboxing feature will supposedly keep apps safe. While live-blogging the WWDC keynote, Macworld editor Jason Snell said it "will be interesting to see how secure it is and if it becomes a meme that App Store apps are safer than non-App Store apps."
Apps downloaded from the App Store will appear on your Launchpad, an iPhone-like interface which displays your apps in rows and columns on your desktop. Apps will also remember your most recent state, so when you launch an app you'll go back to where you were when you quit, Macworld reports. That's similar to how things work with the iPhone and iPad.