The Snow Leopard version of Mac OS X released in 2009 was widely hailed by Mac users. The version was leaner, much faster and more thoroughly integrated with applications than ever before. And then Apple unveiled its plans for the Lion version in late 2010.
There were concerns that the planned changes would slow down the Mac OS. But most of all there was skepticism about Apple's intent to make the Mac OS X look and behave more like iOS, the touch firmware for its iPhones and iPads.
Lion, or formally Mac OS X 10.7, was finally released July 20, 2011, with over 250 new features. Those included multi-touch gestures, system-wide support for full screen apps, revamped Mail application, a new way to see easily all running applications and active windows (called Mission Control), the now-built-in Mac App Store (analogous to the iOS App Store for finding and downloading programs), and Launchpad, a full-screen, grid-like display of available applications, which can be re-arranged and grouped into folders.
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The next day, Apple announced a million downloads had already taken place, making Lion the fastest-selling Mac OS release in the company's history. Two months later, by the end of Apple's fourth quarter, another 5 million had downloaded it, perhaps in part enticed by a dramatic price cut, to $30 from $129. Apple also announced a new record for Mac sales: 4.89 million, or 760,000 more than in any previous quarters. For the fiscal year, Mac sales totaled 16.8 million, bringing the total number of Mac users worldwide to about 60 million.
A speed test comparison by CNET found almost no meaningful difference between Snow Leopard and Lion. "At least on our benchmark tests, it appears that Lion will provide the same speedy performance as its predecessor," wrote CNET's Rich Brown.
Lifehacker concurred. "Overall, with the exception of the application launching test it seems like there are few differences in speed between the two operating systems," wrote Adam Dachis. Lion took a bit longer to launch applications, but loaded Websites faster, and was considerably faster in file compression.
But the "iOSification" of the Mac continues to divide users. Infoworld's Galen Gruman detailed six "Lion Letdowns," most of them related to this trend.
And Erica Saudan, at TheUnofficialAppleWeblog, posted on "Lion: Ten things that bug me."
"Taking aspects of the iPad and iPhone into Mac OS X makes a lot of sense, just as iOS took so much from Mac OS X -- they both share the core code, after all," Gruman writes. A successful example: the new user interface for the Mac's Mail application, which is a "nice adaptation from the iPad's Mail app." And adding gestures for Macs, via touch-aware input devices such as the newer Mac's touchpad or Apple's Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad is another plus.
But there are misses, he says, such as Mac OS X Launchpad, modeled after the grid-like home screen on the iPhone or iPad. "It may sound great to have all your apps in a grid on your screen, but it's not," Gruman says. "On a computer screen, the grid is overwhelmingly large, and the order in which apps appears is essentially random. Sure, you can create folders and rearrange them, but it's a lot of work to do something that the [previous version's] Dock and the Finder windows for your Applications folder and Utilities folder handle much better."
Another "letdown" is eliminating the traditional scroll bars in the application window. Using an Apple touch input device, Mac OS X makes the scroll bar disappear but it brings it back when it detects you're trying to scroll to see more of the contents. "Dropping the visual clue that there is more to scroll to is a clear mistake for Lion -- and a surprising one for a UI-savvy company like Apple," Gruman writes. (In Mac OS's General System Preferences, you can turn this feature off and restore conventional scrolling.)
Not everyone agrees. Mac users in online forums say they think the "natural" scrolling matches the natural movement of a finger: when you touch something and move it downward, you expect the content to move downward, not in the opposite direction. "Strangely enough, after using Android phones and now a tablet for years, the new scrolling felt perfect for me," said one forum poster, RevengeOfTheNerd, wrote. He had upgraded to Lion from the much older Tiger release. Still others said the changes, while initially jarring, quickly became habitual.
The Snow Leopard release was praised for adding a raft of business friendly features, especially for the first time native support of Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, enabling a closer integration with corporate email, calendars, and contacts, including links to LDAP and other enterprise directories.
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Lion now includes the ability to download Lion Server, and the enterprise praise this time around is less enthusiastic, despite a price cut to $50 from $500. "[C]uts in services and the elimination of advanced GUI administration tools may force some enterprise departments to think twice about the role of Mac servers on their networks," writes Infoworld's John Rizzo.
Rizzo concludes it's a big application that is cumbersome to install via the App Store. Numerous services have been inexplicably dropped or downgraded, such as support for Windows clients. "For years, Mac OS X Server's LDAP-based Open Directory had the ability to function as a primary domain controller (PDC) to support Windows clients," Rizzo explains. That provided single sign-on authentication, and let users access the same accounts and server-based home folders from both their Windows PCs and their Macs. By contrast, in Lion Server, "Windows clients still have access to file sharing, but are now second-class clients."
The one IT bright spot: Profile Manager, a new Web-based tool for automatic push configuration and group policy management for all Mac Lion and iOS clients. The program is "miles ahead of Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server's old Managed Preferences features," Rizzo says. And there's "built-in support for Microsoft's distributed file system (DFS) and Apple's Xsan file system, the latter for accessing storage-area networks (SAN) over Fibre Channel."
Lion may not have arrived with quite the roar of acclaim of Snow Leopard, but the numbers indicate there's no going back. And in the "post PC" era, Apple clearly continues to refine the Mac OS user experience based on the lessons it learns from the iOS mobile experience.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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