Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Apple has been pointing towards a future controlled by gestures and multi-touch interfaces. This couldn’t be more clear than in Apple’s latest operating system, OS X Lion, where the line between desktop and mobile computing starts to blur. Lion is rife with iOS-inspired features and design choices, but is this for better or worse? And what does this mean for the future of both platforms? Read on for my take.
The first thing you see when Lion is booted up is the controversial “natural” new way to scroll. For over a decade we’ve been scrolling up to go up and down to go down. Apple has now come to the conclusion that this is the wrong way and inverted scrolling as default in Lion. Today, up means down and down means up. Kooky, right? Users have been very vocal that this is completely wrong and disorienting. They say that inverted scrolling works well on iOS because you’re physically manipulating the screen, but is completely backwards on OS X. “I’m trying to use a computer not play freakin Golden Eye,” exclaimed Brian Chen in his Wired review.
Amidst almost universal backlash, I like it! I usually don’t prefer inverted controls, but it does indeed feel natural. If you’ve ever used a modern smartphone, this new way of scrolling will feel familiar. While familiarity has been part of Apple’s brand strategy ever since the iPod, it’s important to look beneath the surface to understand what we’re dealing with as this sets the tone for Lion as a transitional OS. When you scroll, because of iOS it feels as if you are physically moving your content like you would on a smartphone or tablet. This establishes a connection with whatever you’re handling – it makes the digital seem more real. If you don’t buy that, you can switch it off under System Preferences > Trackpad/Mouse, but this core idea manifests itself all over Lion. I’m not sure if I will continue scrolling this way because horizontal reverse scrolling is a monster. Honestly, I think I just enjoy the novelty of inverted scrolling and will stick to normal scrolling. The illusion of pushing and pulling your content is not lost.
All these gestures – zooming, swiping, tapping – work to make computers feel more natural, easier, and fun to use and succeed in doing so. Selling stand-alone trackpads is Steve Jobs’ way of saying that pointing and clicking with a mouse is the old way of doing things. Apple’s love affair with gestures sometimes makes things more complicated though. For example, going straight to the desktop has never been more difficult. Its “spread with thumb and three fingers” gesture was, at least for me, awkward and infuriating. I could never get it right. Tip: Just spread with all five fingers and it always works. With this said, I wish there was more customization in gesture input. I changed Mission Control (below) to swiping up with 4 fingers instead of 3, but want to go straight to the desktop by swiping down with 4 fingers as well. That seems like it would be a more intuitive combo.
Mission Control gives you a bird’s eye view of everything going on, an evolution of Exposé. I love being able to access everything that’s running with a single gesture. What makes Mission Control different from Exposé is the inclusion of virtual desktops, which have replaced Spaces. They function the same way except now they are more intuitively integrated. A 4-finger swipe left and right switches between desktops. Really smooth.
Full Screen Apps
Clicking on the arrow at the top right of most apps launches you into full screen mode. This is a great example of one of Apple’s main design goals: getting technology and distractions out of the way while interacting with your content. This is part of what makes the iPad so “magical” in the first place. While browsing in full screen mode, I was flip flopping between Chrome, my standard browser, and Safari. While I appreciate the new Safari in all its disappearing scroll bar goodness, I simply could not give up the robust functionality of Chrome. A lot of Lion’s functionality is missing from Chrome until Google updates it, but you can manage to maneuver yourself around it if you’re a Chrome loyalist like I am. Full screen is a beautiful way to view photos, update your calendar or browse the web without distraction. Navigating towards the top reveals information (like an address bar) and going back down puts you back in full screen mode.
While this is my favorite new feature of Lion, it does have its drawbacks. I can’t access my dock while in this mode, but thankfully this makes Launchpad [pic] somewhat useful. I’m not a fan of Launchpad because accessing the dock or using spotlight search is an easier way of launching applications for me, but assigning cmd+A as its keyboard shortcut makes it worthwhile in full screen mode. Sometimes full screen apps can be too engaging. The time disappears which makes it easier to lose yourself in what you’re doing, kind of like how there are no clocks in casinos. On the other hand, if an application or website is ugly (see: Facebook), there’s even more reason to leave.
I stopped using Mail after I checked 6 new emails. I recognize that I’m in the minority here, but I just don’t like it. Its layout is the definition of clutter with too many buttons in close proximity to each other – it’s frustrating. Apple included cute new reply/reply all/forward buttons at the top every email, but they’re at the top of the main Mail window as well. Too much! Gmail reigns supreme. Using Google Chrome with the Gmail extension is pure bliss, especially now that the black toolbar keeps everything together. Sorry Apple, but Google has you beat in form and function on this one.
OS X Lion is definitely going to alienate some people. iOS users will feel right at home while some will argue that it’s too different for no reason. I love 10.7, but find it lacking because there isn’t anything really new here. Its significance lies in how much Apple is borrowing from its iOS product line. What I find fascinating is what this means for future mobile and desktop operating systems. What will iOS 6 look like? What will OS 10.8 look like? Apple is building these two platforms simultaneously and their similarities are going to be even further expanded upon. What about hardware; how hard will Apple push to converge the iOS ecosystem with the Mac, if at all? I was disappointed with Snow Leopard because it was mostly an under-the-hood upgrade and Lion simply borrows from iOS to further evolve the platform. There hasn’t been anything groundbreaking in OS X in a long while. Is desktop computing simply ‘good enough’ or is Apple planning another gamechanger with OS XI? We’ll see…