Apple’s Lion: a step toward a unified operating system

Pretty soon Macs will be operating just like iPhones

Apple CEO Steve Jobs talks about the new Apple Mac X Lion at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I stopped caring about computer operating systems, but it was definitely at some point during the past two and a half years. I bought my first Mac back in March 2009, which is when I started delving into the heavy-duty writing of Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and since then I honestly haven’t thought much about the software powering my computer because it simply just worked.

That’s opposed to my previous experiences with other operating systems, where I generally spent more time worrying about getting the computer to run properly than on what I was actually supposed to be doing with it.

So when Apple released the updated Snow Leopard OS later in 2009, I really didn’t care. I was quite pleased with what was already on my computer, its predecessor Leopard, so I didn’t even bother upgrading. Similarly, I wasn’t too excited about the newest Lion operating system, released last week. I did download Lion onto a Macbook Air laptop, however, just to check it out.

Thorough reviews are all over the web, so I won’t delve too deeply into what’s new. Essentially, there are a couple nifty improvements among the 250 new features touted by Apple, most of which are likely to be familiar to anyone using the iOS found on Apple’s iPads, iPhones and iPods.

Chief among the new features is gesture control, which is available on compatible computers with trackpads – either on laptops or as side accessories. Besides just controlling the cursor on screen with one finger as we’re used to doing, now swiping up or down with two fingers will scroll the screen correspondingly. Swiping up with three fingers, meanwhile, will bring up Mission Control, which I’ll get to in a second. The feature also brings the pinch-to-zoom capability, made famous by the iPhone, to computers. Pinching in and out on websites zooms in on them the same way as it does on an iOS device.

Although it’s a neat feature, I’m not too crazy about gesture control on computers. As other reviewers have noted, tablets and phones are mostly media consumption devices while computers are largely devoted to creation. While whooshing around with your fingers is great if you’re watching movies and reading websites, that sort of interface isn’t the best for when you’re editing videos or, ahem, writing blog posts. Whether or not this particular feature proves practical is up for debate.

Mission Control is a sort of home screen where you can look at everything you’ve got open, then switch to what you want quickly. It’s handy if you often have tons of stuff running at once. I’m not exactly a power user in that I only have a few things going at any given time, so I can’t see myself using this feature much, the same way I barely touched its predecessor, Exposé.

Lion’s other main feature is the Launchpad, which is instantly recognizable to anyone who has used an iOS device. Launchpad calls up essentially the same grid of applications found on an iPad or iPhone. And, just as on those devices, the app pages can be navigated by swiping sideways on the touchpad.

Lion also installs the Mac app store right on the computer’s dock. While the store was available to users of Snow Leopard after they downloaded it, it’s a little more front and centre on Lion. Launching it brings up the same sort of one-stop software house found on iOS devices – free apps such as Twitter are available, as are paid ones (the Lego Star Wars Saga video game is only $29.99!).

The app store is a nice-if-not-entirely-necessary concept in that it brings a lot of software together into one place. However, anyone who wants to buy an Adobe product probably already knows they can simply get it from the company’s own website.

When all of the above is put together, it’s very clear Apple is trying to nudge its computers closer to working like its mobile devices. Gesture control and a focus on apps are basically what made the iPhone such a phenomenon. It’s no surprise then, that the company wants all of its products to be more like the iPhone. The Lion operating system therefore seems to be the first real step in that direction.

The complete OS can be downloaded for $30, a measly price for anyone who wants to stay up to date on the latest features. But, like I said at the top of the post, there’s still no real urgent reason to upgrade. Mac users really can’t go wrong either way.

Lion’s biggest accomplishment, however, is in proving that the race for the unified operating system is most definitely on. Microsoft last month issued a video that gave a first glimpse at its upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which will evidently work on computers, tablets and phones. Google also has some work to do in unifying its computer-based Chrome operating system with the various flavours of Android that run on phones and tablets.

A unified operating system that works across all devices is something of a holy grail in that it can tie customers to one specific company. If you have an iPhone, for example, you’re likely to want your computer and tablet to work nice and smoothly with it, which might motivate you to also buy a Mac and an iPad.

A unified operating system is therefore not unlike the telecom service provider’s bundle, where getting multiple products from the same company provides a benefit to the customer. In the telecom world, that’s usually a discount on each service, whereas in the computing world it’s ease of interoperability.

Ironically though, the real success of these eventual unified operating systems may not lie in how well they succeed in tying their own devices together, but rather in how well they work with the other guys’ OSes. While there are benefits to using only one company’s products, nobody likes to be forced to do so. The smart ones will do well to remember that and not get too myopic.

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