Today's big unveiling of the new MacBook Air was overshadowed by an unveiling from 15 minutes previous. I speak, of course, of the new version of Mac OS X, that being 10.7 or "Lion." While some features seem like incremental upgrades, it represents a paradigm shift for computer operating systems — borrowing from the best parts of their children, mobile OSes.
iPad OriginsWhen the iPad debuted, it was dismissed by many in the tech community (some of us included) as being an expensive toy, not worthy of even the noun "computer." While many of those criticisms were valid, the iPad's runaway success has certainly showed it's onto something in terms of what people expect from an electronic device. To say that PCs have nothing to learn from it would be a mistake.
Clearly Apple didn't make that mistake. They appear to have taken the best and most applicable aspects of iOS and brought them to the Mac in Lion. And, really, it's about time. Apps that boot up quickly, are easy to find, and start in exactly the same state you left them in — why doesn't this happen already? Why does Word still take up to 20 seconds to come alive in 2010? And why doesn't it remember and keep open all the files I was working on when I quit last time? There are obviously technical answers to each question, but it's clear that these aren't goals that the designers of that particular software have been working toward.
Seeing the Full PictureFull-screen mode is a big part of this shift in thinking. It's not like full-screen interfaces haven't been around for individual Mac apps for a long time, but having the option in more places isn't just a convenience. It changes the way we interact with apps, and will influence how they're designed. A single type of display with bloated toolbars, menus and palates is not intuitive to a lot of people. Think about it — even if you're a pro, how much of what you see on the default Photoshop palates do you use often enough to always be there? But clicking on specific parts of something you're working on, and only seeing the tools you'd need in that specific situation… that's simply a smarter way to do things.
Does this mean application windows are going away? Probably not, at least not right away, though I suspect navigating that way will slowly be de-emphasized. It's already going that way with things like tabbed browsing and Exposé. Lion's Mission Control feature takes this a step further. Seeing everything you have running — and everything you have available to you — simultaneously has clear advantages. When I'm looking for a file, I'll use my regular desktop. But when I actually want to do pretty much anything else, this will likely be my go-to screen.
Let's Do the App Store AgainPotentially even more momentous than the changes to OS X was the announcement of the Mac App Store. Today, if you need an application for your Mac, you turned to Google, then proceeded to either nervously download from a questionable third party or do something ridiculous for a piece of software: pay money for a physical disc to be sent to you (the really ambitious would go to an actual store). While Apple certainly runs the iOS App Store in opaque and silly ways, there's no question it's reliable.
At the same time, I'd wager there's a much bigger market for casual apps on the Mac that's gone pretty much untapped. The sea of MacBooks I see every time I go into a Starbucks can't all be running Final Cut Pro. If people are willing to drop $0.99 on iPhone game, why not $1.99 on a time-waster for a latte-fueled Saturday afternoon? It probably doesn't even occur to the bulk of casual Mac users that they could easily download and fire up apps like they could on an iPhone, and a big reason is because there isn't a centralized place they can go for them.
Of course, the other reason people don't download apps on Macs like they do iPads is that the bulk of what anyone could be looking for — games, tools, fart apps — is already available for free on the Web. But as people are finding on mobile devices, often a dedicated app can provide a better experience (getting rid of those toolbars and menus again). Will people go for that same experience on a Mac? We'll find out in 90 days.
The Shift Toward MobileBut ultimately, I think OS X 10.7 will be looked back on when computers started to shift toward a mobile interface, which is really a convenience interface. For decades, computers have imposed a hierarchical way of thinking upon what we do with them: What folder is that photo in? How are my contacts organized? But it turns out people don't think that way. We want to simply grab the things most relevant to what we want and need right now, and don't care where they're stored or how we get to them. Think Delicious vs. bookmarking.
Lion exemplifies this straightforward way of thinking, at both the system and app level. Of course, it took that philosophy from iOS, which was once (rightly) lambasted for not including such basic desktop functions as copy-and-paste. Now the kid is calling the shots. Good thing he's got a lot of experience.