While Apple tends to oversell its evolutionary Mac OS X updates to a blindly accepting audience, let's at least give credit where credit is due: Mac OS X is a rich, mature, and full-featured general-purpose operating system. And as our expectations of what's possible on desktop and portable computers changes, Apple, like Microsoft, is beginning to rethink how these more traditional systems work. Lion, as the next version of Mac OS X is called, represents a first step, I think, towards melding the OS X user experience with that of Apple's far more popular iOS devices--the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. And while it's not entirely successful in this first rendition, I also know Apple well enough to know that they'll get there over time.

At first glance, Lion is very similar looking to its predecessor, called Snow Leopard, itself an evolutionary update over the prior release, Leopard. But as with Microsoft's Windows 7 OS, the whole of Lion's many changes represents a nice refinement that measurably improves the Mac OS X user experience, making it both simpler and better looking. Apple has a long-established--and mostly undeserved--reputation for making an OS that is supposedly "ease to use," when in fact OS X had always targeted computer experts, not beginners, offering up an obtuse and inscrutable UI. But that's starting to change with Lion, and while I know the core Mac OS X user base will recoil at some of these changes, it's for the better, especially when you consider the mass market general audience that Apple is finally targeting.

lion_12_0

Generally speaking, the idea behind Lion is simple: iOS is hugely popular, and it's much simpler than Mac OS X, so why not pull some of the user experiences from iOS into OS X, giving that larger user base more of a reason to consider Apple's high-priced, general purpose computers? This plan makes plenty of sense and while I can quibble with a few of the interfaces Apple has come up with in Lion, the broad strokes stuff is entirely correct. Put simply, Apple is moving this thing in exactly the right direction.

"What we've done is, we started with Mac OS X and we created from it a version called iOS, which we used in the iPhone," Apple CEO Steve Jobs explained at the Lion unveiling last October. "And we invented some new things, and we perfected it over the last [four] years, and it's now used in the iPad as well. We're inspired by some of those [iOS] innovations, and we'd like to bring them back to the Mac. And that's what Lion is about."

Yes. Yes indeed.

It's impossible to look at the iPad in particular and not immediately wish that your PC (or, in this case, Mac) exhibited some of its better bits of functionality: Faster performance, including boot time. Instant on with resume. Multi-touch gestures. Simple, full-screen user experiences. An integrated App Store, tied to an online account with liberal app install rights. Auto save, both in the OS (open windows and so on) and in each app (auto data save). And app auto-resume, so that when you close and reopen an app, it goes right back to where you were the last time.

These are all great, high-level ideas. And Apple has made each available in Lion, along with hundreds of other changes, resulting in what is both the best version of Mac OS X yet and, for perhaps the first time ever, the first Mac OS X upgrade that is arguably more than just evolutionary.

I'm not a Mac guy, though unlike some of my cohorts in the Windows community, my interest in the other side of the fence isn't a recent, trendy affectation: I've had one or more Macs here for testing and comparison purposes since the first release of Mac OS X in 2001. In fact, I've owned dozens of Macs, and dozens of Apple devices, and I've used (and written about) every single version of Mac OS X and iOS that's ever appeared. And while I appreciate the disdain with which some readers here may have for Apple's products, I'll remind everyone that you can't fully understand what Microsoft is and is not doing in its own OS products unless you understand the competition as well. And with Lion, Apple has once again raised the bar, making it more important than ever that Microsoft do the same with Windows 8, due next year. This is the context with which I evaluate Apple's OS releases.

What's new in Lion

Here are some of the changes happening in Lion that I feel are the most important.

Full screen apps

Mac OS X's odd UI, with a system-wide menu bar at the top and the real-estate-hogging Dock at the bottom, has never been a particularly hospitable place for apps and other windows. That is, when you expand a window to be "full screen" in OS X, it wouldn't cover up the menu bar or Dock, wasting onscreen space.

But with Lion, Apple is introducing a true, system-wide full screen capability for apps, and while existing apps don't get this feature automatically, Apple has updated most of the important built-in apps--Mail, Safari, and so on to work this way. And these apps thus look and work a bit more like iPad apps--which are always full screen, of course--providing a simpler, less cluttered UI. And if you can wrap your mind around Lion's gesture-based application navigation functionality (see below), you've got a nice way of quickly jumping between each running full screen app.

lion_14_0

We've had true full screen apps in Windows for a long time, of course. But what both Windows and now Lion lack is a universal hot-key for toggling full screen mode and the normal floating window style. In Windows, this is often (but not always) done with the F11 key, for example. I don't believe there's a similar key that always toggles apps in Lion, though there should be. But I'm nitpicking, and there is a handy enough new full-screen button in all such apps. Overall, the full screen apps feature is nicely done.

Launchpad

With iOS, users don't deal with a lot of the intricacies of the underlying system, as we do on PCs and Macs. There's no notion of a file system, let alone the location within that file system that documents and applications can be found. So Apple presents a simpler system for application launching, where app icons (and now folders) are arrayed on a grid on one or more home screens. Now, with Lion, Apple is also bringing this UI to Mac OS X. It's called Launchpad.

lion_15_0

As you can see, Launchpad looks and works much like the iOS home screen, with a grid of icons spread over one or more screens. And like its inspiration, the Launchpad isn't particularly customizable. Yes, you can group icons into folders and arrange the icons in whatever order, but they must fill in from the top left, with no gaps.

The problem with Launchpad is that it's just ugly and uninspiring. And while I know that the Windows 8 UI is still a gleam in Steven Sinofsky's eye and not something that millions of people have access to yet, come on. There you see how a touch-first, mobile-centric UI can be made to be both beautiful and useful. Launchpad, like the iOS UI, is neither.

That said, I give Apple some credit for consistency. Though I do happen to think that this UI is pretty lackluster, having a consistent way of launching apps across the two platforms makes sense. Maybe both will get nicer looking next.

Multi-touch gestures

While the original iPhone was revolutionary on a number of levels, the big deal there, I think, was the pure, multi-touch user interface that did away a hardware keyboard and other buttons, allowing the screen to transform itself into different UIs and interact with the user via gestures. Moving this innovative interaction scheme to the Mac was an obvious evolution, just as it was for Microsoft with Windows. But Apple went about this in a very different fashion.

First, Apple believes, probably correctly, that the vertical angle at which most computer screens sit make them less than ideal for multi-touch; that's because to use such an interface, you'd have to hang your arm horizontally in the air, an action that quickly gets tiring. So instead of building touch into the screen, as Microsoft did in Windows, Apple built it into its trackpads and other pointing devices.

Second, where Microsoft essentially built a touch overlay on top of Windows 7, allowing the user to interact with Windows in yet another way (alongside mouse, keyboard, stylus/pen, remote control, and so on), Apple instead rethought how one might use multi-touch gestures to interact with onscreen objects. So in Lion, the system isn't completely multi-touch aware, like it is in Windows. But where touch and multi-touch is enabled, the effect is more natural and useful.

(Microsoft, of course, is implementing a "touch first" UI in Windows 8, but that won't be out until 2012.)

Lion's multi-touch features are an evolution of work from previous OS X versions, which is just fine. The problem I have with this functionality is that it's non-discoverable. You need to be taught about this stuff, somehow, before you can use it, let alone master it. And worse still, it's likely that most users' first (and subsequent) interactions with multi-touch will occur because they mistakenly swiped their fingers across the track pad in some random fashion.

Assuming you take the time to figure out these gestures, however, multi-touch works pretty well. You can scroll through a document using a vertical, two-finger swipe that's quite nice. (And I really like how Lion has "reversed" the scroll direction; it's hard to explain, but it does feel more natural.) You switch between full screen apps using a three-finger, horizontal swipe (the gesture version of Windows' ALT + TAB).  Double-tap with two fingers to zoom into a web site. And of course pinch to zoom.

Mac App Store

Once the initial excitement over the iPhone dissipated in 2007, the grumbling began. And while there was certainly plenty to complain about that first year, the biggest complaint about the iPhone, perhaps, was the lack of a real application platform. (It's hard to believe, but Apple originally thought that developers would simply create HTML 5-based web apps for the iPhone.) So Apple stepped back, listened to the complaints and then emerged the following year with what can only be described as a grand slam: It created a native apps platform for iPhone, of course, but also an iTunes Store-like Apps Store where users could discover, download, and buy new apps.

An app store is now considered a crucial part of any computing platform, and that's true whether you're talking mobile devices (Windows Phone), web apps (Chrome) or, now, a traditional PC like the Mac. In Lion, Apple is for the first time integrating a Mac version of its popular App Store into OS X. And while this may seem fairly obvious, what Apple's done here is actually quite wonderful. Windows needs something like this, and sooner rather than later.

lion_11_0

The Mac App Store is important because it brings the notion of a centralized user account (your Apple ID, in this case) and liberal, multi-machine installations to the Mac. And that means that when you buy an application through the App Store, it's tied to your user account, and thus to you, not to an individual machine. So with the exception of some so-called "pro apps" (like Final Cut Pro X), apps purchased through the Mac App Store can be reinstalled and reinstalled on as many machines as you own.

There are other niceties to this store. It's got a nice look and feel, of course. It handles downloading and updating, and when you install an app it's added to the Launchpad as well as the now-hidden Applications folder. Purchases are tracked so you can easily go back and see the list of everything you've purchased. It's also integrated into the OS, so that when you encounter an unknown file type, Lion can suggest compatible apps in the store.

(One nitpick: The App Store application doesn't utilize the new Lion full screen mode. Doh!)

This is app buying done right: Once you buy an app, you own it, and you can install it again anytime you want. Bravo.

App Resume, Auto Save, and Versions

If you scan over the list of new features in Lion, especially the truncated version I'm focusing on in this review, something obvious emerges: Many of them are related to applications, or what many now more informally call apps. This is by design: Like Windows, OS X is simply a platform for apps (and for the data that they generate and work with), and Apple's strategy here is very much centered on increasing the use and capabilities of native OS X apps. This makes sense as the biggest success of iOS, perhaps, has been the establishment of a formal apps platform, served by an online store, and tied to users via an Apple ID.

So it's no surprise that Apple looks to iOS for inspiration, but what I find interesting is that the new Lion apps platform isn't just about monetizing third party apps and giving Apple a 30 percent slice of that pie, it also includes some meaningful improvements to the ways in which apps actually work. And these are useful improvements, and largely unavailable on the Windows side. We need functionality like this, stat.

Here, I'm lumping three separate but related new Lion app feature into a single discussion because they work together, I think, to improve how apps work on the Mac. These are (app) resume, auto save, and versions.

App resume allows newly-built OS X apps (including those built into Lion) to reopen in whatever context they were in after you close them. Conceptually, this works like the resume functionality on your PC; the PC doesn't just start over when it resumes, everything comes back to the way it was. So Lion basically adds this capability to individual apps. What this means in real world use is that you can, say, navigate to a different date in iCal, quit the app, relaunch it later, and find yourself right back at that same view. Or perhaps you quit Safari (the Apple web browser) with three tabs open: When you relaunch Safari, not only are those three apps still there, but the correctly focused tab is still visible.

Lion also provides a more global form of resume that any user who's been bitten by the "oh, sorry, Windows Update had to reboot overnight; hope you didn't lose anything important" issue. And that is, when Lion reboots (perhaps because of a software update, as with Windows), it will by default restart each previously running application when you return to the desktop. And thanks to the built-in app resume functionality, each comes back exactly as it was before. Wonderful.

As with app resume, the new auto save functionality requires a newly-built, Lion-compliant app. Here, apps can optionally be imbued with an auto save functionality that automatically saves an app's document every five minutes. Big deal, you say? (After all, Microsoft Office applications do this as well.) Well, it goes a step further--many steps, really--by also saving changes made to a document over time. This latter feature is called versions, and it allows you to "go back in time" and revert a document to previous versions at any time.

Now, we do have this latter functionality in Windows, sort of. In fact, Microsoft first implemented it in Windows Server in 2003 and then in Windows Vista in 2006. But Apple's approach is superior because it's built into the apps--you know, exactly the place you'd be looking for the previous version of a document--and is a much better (and more discoverable) user experience.

Long story short, here again Apple has taken functionality that existed previously elsewhere, made it easier to use and functionality superior, and created in effect something that is both new and different. And in this case, it's just plain better. These features, in tandem with resume and other apps improvements, give Lion a measurable edge over Windows right now in terms of underlying apps functionality. This is nicely done.

Mission Control

Like Microsoft, Apple has wrestled with various window management complexities as its OS has improved and matured, but maintained a dated, desktop-based UI that was never designed to handle this much stuff. Apple's solutions previously included separate environments such as Dashboard (for mini-applications called widgets), Exposé (window and sub-window management), and Spaces (separate, full screen workspaces). Lion retains these three separate solutions but it combines them into a single interface, of sorts, called Mission Control, which also works with the aforementioned full screen apps.

As such, Mission Control is a bit of a mess, and clearly a power user feature. (The gesture is a hard-to-accomplish four finger, vertical up-swipe, though you can configure it for three fingers if you want. Even better: Use the old Exposé button on your Apple keyboard; it's been remapped to Mission Control.)

lion_17_0

Basically, what you get is a screen from which you can choose between the Dashboard (increasingly deemphasized), the desktop (including any floating applications and other windows), and any full-screen apps. You can arrange the windows as you like, effectively changing the z-order (i.e. the order in which windows appear as you move between them, as you would with ALT + TAB on Windows). You can create new workspaces and of course move between existing workspaces.

It's pretty busy. Power users are going to love it. Mainstream users who are drawn to full screen apps? Not so much.

Changes to Built-in Apps, fit and finish changes

Like any other software maker, Apple tinkers with its software with each release, sometimes teasing or tweaking user interfaces, adding functionality, and making other changes. With an OS release like Lion, of course, these changes take many forms. But rather than pull out a laundry list of app-by-app changes, I'd like to mention a few that I find notable.

Apple's venerable Mail app has gotten a big update in Lion, both in terms of look and feel and in functionality. It's now very similar to the iPad version of Mail, which I am A-OK with, especially when run in full-screen mode. I was able to get Mail up and running with my various Exchange Server accounts very nicely, something you still can't do in Windows without an expensive additional application (Outlook).

lion_16_0

Safari similarly benefits from an iPad-like look and full-screen mode, and it features a nice new download manager, a Reading List pane for saving web pages for later reading offline, and of course the integrated Reader feature which lets you read a web article in a cleaner, ad-free view that's quite pleasing.

On the flip side, Apple continues to bork up some UIs with unnecessary and, I think, detrimental ornamentations that resemble real world objects. So the Address Book app continues to look sort of like a paper-based address book, even though few of Lion's users have ever even seen such a thing. And now iCal is marred by a similar effect, creating yet another app in OS X that looks and feels nothing like other apps or user interfaces.

lion_10_0

There are of course fit and finish changes all-around in Lion. All of the main UI elements--buttons, progress bars, and so on--have been visually upgraded and made flatter and more attractive. Windows, finally, can be resized from any edge and not just from the lower right corner (hey, it is 2011). Scroll bars only appear (in new apps) when you're scrolling, creating a clean appearance otherwise. (That said, this could be confusing to users in certain situations, since it won't be clear that there is more content available "below" the window frame.)

lion_13_0

And a new Mail, Contacts & Calendars pane in System Preferences (the Mac Control Panel) makes account setup nearly identical to that on iOS. (Which is just great, frankly.)

lion_09_0

Server

While this won't impact a huge number of users, one of the truly nifty things about Lion is that Apple is no longer selling a separate, much more expensive server-based version of Mac OS X. Instead, Server is a $50 add-on for the client version of Lion, one that any Lion user can easily purchase. And doing so provides you with an incredibly low-cost UNIX workgroup server that should be a boon to small businesses that have standardized on Mac. I haven't evaluated Server yet, but will, and I'm curious to see whether the combination of this software and a repurposed Core 2 Duo-based Mac mini could represent a viable alternative to Windows Home Server or Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials.

Seriously, $50. That's fantastic.

Availability and pricing

While Microsoft has offered electronically downloadable versions of Windows for years, Apple has taken the unusual step of making Lion available only as an electronic download for those hoping to upgrade. (Obviously, it's included on all new Macs going forward as well.) This presents some interesting but not insurmountable challenges, because you'll typically need to install the Mac App Store on your Snow Leopard-based Mac (Leopard users do not qualify), download the hefty 3.74 GB installer, and then upgrade the machine. (You can also optionally clean install Lion in a separate partition.)

Fortunately, for those who then wish to later wipe out their Macs and then just install Lion, Apple installs a recovery partition on all Lion-based machines, which allows you to do this without having to first install Snow Leopard. I've not tested this, and probably won't, but it's a nice capability that appears to offset otherwise obvious complaints about reinstalling.

Better still, Apple is pricing Lion in such a fashion that no one with a supported Mac would even consider not upgrading. Lion costs just $29.99, the same price as the Snow Leopard upgrade, but unlike with that release, this price covers as many Macs as you want to upgrade. That's because the purchase is tied to your Apple ID, not to a particular machine. (Apple previously offered Mac OS X Family Packs so users could legally upgrade multiple Macs at a discount.)

Final thoughts

I can see no reason why anyone with a Snow Leopard-based Mac wouldn't upgrade to Lion. This upgrade features a ton of new features and is priced to sell. It's a no brainer.

For Microsoft and, to a lesser degree, Windows users, Lion represents Apple throwing down the gauntlet. The company already dominates the mobile space with its iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and by taking the best and most appropriate ideas from iOS and applying them to the Mac, the company is announcing its intention to continue this success in Microsoft's core market of PCs.

Those iOS-to-OS X changes are a mixed bag, of course. Some are very well intentioned--all the apps improvements, the quick resume and so on--while others, especially Launchpad, are misguided because they're not necessarily efficient, even on iOS. But I think Apple's doing the right thing by bringing the two product lines together where it makes sense, at least from a user experience standpoint. I may not agree with each design decision, but Apple will tinker with this and get it right over time, as they always do.

But Lion, overall, is in great shape. Where I've generally derided Apple for overpimping its largely evolutionary OS X updates over the years, Lion shows that there's some life left yet in the Mac OS X side of the house. This isn't just a collection of minor updates and refinishes. It's a step away from the norm, finally, after a decade of steady and largely boring minor revisions. I'm excited to see where they take OS X next.