Apple's Lion: A marriage of iOS and OS X

Apple's Back to the Mac event yesterday 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 take a look at the major themes and announcements first, then dig into what Lion may mean for Mac users going forward. Finally, we'll close with some thoughts on iLife '11, which also made its debut yesterday.

The Mac is still important to Apple

With all the recent focus on the iPad, iPhone 4, fourth-generation iPod touch and Apple TV, the Mac has started to seem like Apple's redheaded stepchild. However, Apple COO Tim Cook made it very clear that the Mac is still a key part of Apple's business, having accounted for a third of Apple's revenue in the company's recently closed fiscal year. There are nearly 50 million Mac users worldwide, he said, and Mac sales are three times as large as they were just five years ago -- largely owing to Apple's retail stores.

Cook also highlighted that there are currently 600,000 registered Mac developers and that the company is adding an average of 30,000 developers each month. I can't help but think that this incredible upswing in registered developers is related to Apple's decision to reduce the individual membership in its Mac developer program (which comes with a slate of training, documentation and resources for developers) from its previous $499/year price tag to just $99/year.

Clearly, despite the success of iOS and Apple's business as a music, movie/TV, and e-book reseller, the company still sees the Mac as a core part of its business.

FaceTime gets ready for its close-up

Many users have been hoping Apple would make FaceTime video calling available to a wider audience than just iPhone 4 and fourth-generation iPod touch owners. While most commentators surmised that Apple would build FaceTime into iChat, it turns out that FaceTime will be a separate application (for now, anyway). Given that most Macs include a built-in camera for video chat and taking photos, this is a natural way to extend FaceTime to a larger audience.

In beta now, FaceTime is available for download from Apple's site. It has potential both for keeping up with friends and family and for conducting virtual business meetings. It will be interesting to see if Apple keeps FaceTime limited to two-party calls or expands it to the multi-party calls that iChat supports.

It will also be interesting to see if Apple bundles FaceTime into the next generation of Mac OS X Server; current and previous releases include a free IM/voice/video chat feature based on the open source Jabber protocol dubbed iChat Server. As Snow Leopard Server and the Mac Mini server hardware provide a simple and very low-cost server solution for small business or workgroups in a larger organization, FaceTime could become a powerful selling point for the platform.

It's worth noting that despite Apple's attempt to push the FaceTime protocol as an open standard that could have compatible apps for Windows 7 and/or Android devices, FaceTime remains an Apple-only technology, while competing products such as Tango and Yahoo Messenger offer broader video calling capability: iOS to Android in the case of Tango and iOS to Android or desktops in the case of Yahoo Messenger.

An interesting side note is that Apple's slides and details about the new MacBook Air refer to the built-in camera as a FaceTime camera instead of the iSight moniker that Apple has used up to this point.

The new MacBook Airs

As expected, Apple introduced two new MacBook Air models that feature several weight-reduction design elements borrowed from the iPad. With 13.3-in. and 11.6-in. displays, both models weigh less than three pounds (2.9 and 2.3 pounds, respectively) and measure less than an inch thick (0.68 in. at their thickest point and 0.11 in. at the thinnest). Eschewing both optical drives and HDD drives, they use only SSD flash storage, which is built right onto the board rather than fitted into a hard drive slot.

Although there's no iPad-style touch screen, the new models do sport a full-size glass track pad (already found on other MacBook models) that supports multi-touch gestures (swiping with varying finger combinations, rotating content, pinch to zoom, etc.) as well as a full-size keyboard. They ship with 2GB of RAM, the Nvidia GeForce 320m graphics chipset and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor (1.4GHz in the 11.6-in. model and 1.86GHz in the 13.3-in. model).

Prices range from $999 for an 11.6-in. model with 64GB of storage to $1,599 for the 13.3-in. model with 256GB of storage.

Jobs has repeatedly said that Apple wouldn't launch a netbook, but the size, weight and battery life of the new Airs (Apple claims 7 hours for the 13.3-in. model and 5 hours for the 11.6-in.) will draw inevitable comparisons to netbooks. While the new Airs aren't likely to win any speed tests against other Mac notebooks (or indeed many PC laptops), their specs do put them ahead of mainstream netbooks when it comes to power and performance.

The 11.6-in. model in particular gives Apple an entry into the sub-notebook space at a much lower entry price than the previous generation of MacBook Airs. It will be interesting to see how these fare in the market compared to iPads.

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.

Multi-touch gestures

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.

What about volume and site licensing? The App Store approach is great for home users, but I can't see it playing out well in schools or businesses where a base configuration and set of apps needs to be made available to a large number of computers. This is already a challenge when deploying iPhones and iPads in bulk, and has been since the App Store launched over two years ago. While iOS 4 addressed many enterprise concerns, it left a gaping hole in terms of mass deployment of apps. Apple could resolve this challenge by including an app management and license server feature in Lion Server.

Auto-save and auto-resume

I like the concept of Apple building the ability to auto-save files into Lion so that every developer can easily include it in their applications -- so long as it doesn't lead to file system challenges like those on iOS devices (where there is no central access to a file system) and it doesn't mean that traditional Open and Save dialogs and methods are going away (which I doubt). Let's face it; we've all lost work because we forgot to hit Save often enough, so this is a big plus.

It would be nice to see this feature tied into some form of revision history. I'm thinking particularly about the ability of Google Docs and Dropbox to find previous versions of a file if you decide you don't want to keep the changes that you (or someone else) made to it. Given that this feature exists in a somewhat limited form with Apple's Time Machine, I don't see it being a big challenge to create, and it is a natural extension of the auto-save concept.

Auto-resume is something I'm less enthusiastic about. It works well for mobile devices that display only one application at a time because you have to switch in and out of apps frequently. I'm not sure I want or need that in my desktop apps. Most of the time when I launch Word, for example, I want to start a new document rather than automatically seeing the last document I had open; otherwise I'd have double-clicked the document I wanted. So I'm hoping this will be an optional feature that users can enable or disable as whole or, better yet, on an app-specific basis.

Launchpad and app home screens

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