Lion will mess with your head – and your processes

23Jul11

Last time a new version of Mac OS X came out, I upgraded right away. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake— the .0 release of Snow Leopard froze up a lot and even KP’d on me a couple times. Everything was cleared up with the .1 release not even two weeks later, but I vowed never to use a .0 release of OS X again. Now Lion is out and— damn!— I’ve gone and done it again. Except, not really. This time I have Jake as my guinea pig. He’s a registered developer and so had access to the beta, and assured me it was stable as could be. So far, he’s right. If you’re holding off on Lion for that reason alone, go ahead and take the plunge.

I’ve got a few general comments I want to zoom through before I get to the real meat of why I’m writing this post. Let’s do them in my patented bullet-list style so I can spare you my engineer’s purple prose.

  • Apple has messed with the appearance again. The change is so slow, and so far between, that it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that OS X has remained visually constant over its seven releases, but nothing could be farther from the truth. If you compare OS X 10.0 to today, it’s shocking how subdued the appearance has become. Do you remember the pinstripes everywhere? Ick! It’s almost like Apple is moving in the opposite direction to Microsoft in terms of visual evolution, and the trend continues with Lion: the famous capsule-shaped buttons are now square, gradients have been replaced by solid colors, blue has often been replaced by grey. I like it, though a few of their choices are irksome: the “stoplight” buttons in the upper-left of windows have been inexplicably shrunk and are smaller click targets. Why? Who knows. The inexplicable exception is iCal and the Address Book, which are now hideously ugly. I never used those to begin with so it doesn’t bother me, but what the hell went wrong here? Apple, we need an option to turn that monstrosity off. Happily, there are also changes to the Mail interface, which are very much for the better. Three-pane browsing, yay!
  • Apple is determined to bring as much of the iPad experience to the desktop as they can. One of the most evident places is the abundance of new trackpad gestures: swipe to change screens, swipe to bring up the application launcher, etc. If you haven’t been using the trackpad on your fancy Mac for navigation and other tasks yet, I can’t recommend it enough: if you’re performing tasks where your fingers aren’t on the keys, keeping them that way has a measurable productivity boost. My one issue was that I had already been doing this sort of thing with jiTouch, so there were a bunch of gesture conflicts. Check for application compatibility before you upgrade! (TrueCrypt breaks too, you’ll need to get an updated version of MacFUSE before you can proceed)
  • Performance seems about the same. Maybe slightly faster. Though in their never-ending quest to provide more eye candy, Apple has now made Finder windows expand to their full size with a quick animation when you open them. Why? Who knows. I don’t think this has caused opening a Finder window to take any more time than it used to in absolute terms, but it feels slower, and that’s all users care about.
  • Support for full-screen apps is awesome on so many levels. I’ve often been working that way anyway— my Chrome window is always fullscreened, and I’ve applied various hacks to get Aquamacs and the Terminal close too— but having every application be able to take up the whole screen will rule, as soon as third-party developers get the necessary code in place. Having the operating system be able to fully get out of your way so you can focus on what you’re doing is an absolute win.

So there’s that. Now let’s talk about the biggest set of changes in Lion, and the one that’s most likely to baffle and rile people.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that its Apple’s mission to make interacting with the computer as easy as possible, even if that comes at the expense of fine-grained control over what’s happening. Lion continues this trend in a couple ways.

First, autosaving. Third-party programs like Office have often rolled their own autosave functionality, but there now APIs so that any application can do it with the operating system’s help. The autosave and versioning functionality is so constant and so pervasive, that there is literally no need to actually save your documents now— Lion is doing it for you. Open up TextEdit and you’ll see that there is no Save option anymore. It has been replaced with “Save a Version”, which essentially forces the autosave feature to keep that particular version no matter what (normally it eventually stops saving versions). As computer users, we’ve been trained so thoroughly so periodically save our work that it’s second-nature. It’s practically part of the standard procedure of using a computer, like clicking “Shut Down” when you’re ready to power down. Apple has gone and said, “Wait, since everyone does this, and everyone should be doing it- why do they have to do it themselves? Why can’t it be part of the operating system?” The idea is that isolating you from accidental deletions and application crashes should be the operating system’s responsibility, just like isolating you from the details of the TCP/IP stack when you browse the Web. It does make sense if you think about it (I promise!), but it flies so firmly in the face of how we’ve been using computers up until now that it may take some getting used to. You don’t have to hit Save! It’ll be OK!

Second, and this is the one that’s really to drive computer geeks up the wall, Apple has now decided to start shielding you from whether or not applications are running, and when they start and stop. What does that mean? It means that Lion can quit your applications whenever it wants, if it decides it needs the additional resources (note: just like iOS). I can already see many of you starting to hyperventilate at this possibility, so let me explain why this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. First, because of the autosave functionality and because Lion can restore applications to their exact state— right down to what text was highlighted when you quit— if Lion quits an application and you start it back up, it will be exactly as if it had never quit at all. Second, Lion is pretty conservative about when it kills a program: it won’t kill it if it has open windows, or is blocked on waiting for data from the disk or network. Here, Apple has said, “As far as the user is concerned, what does it actually matter whether the application is running or not? If the state is always preserved (and it is), the user shouldn’t care about whether there’s a CPU process for that program. Quitting a program to free resources is something the OS should handle.”. Bottom line? You don’t have to quit programs any more. Just keep opening them up, and when Lion needs the resources, it’ll kill a program that isn’t in use. When you need that program again, open it up, and the state restoration will guarantee that it hasn’t changed.

So: you don’t have to Save, and you don’t have to Quit. Two of the most fundamental operations in how we interact with computers— these predate the GUI, for heaven’s sake— deprecated in one stroke. They’re still there, for the moment, but don’t be surprised if there comes a time in the future when OS X doesn’t have them at all. This is the future, folks. Swallow your fears and climb aboard.

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