'Lion' Leaves Us Flat

Mac OS X "Lion" is technically Apple's best ever, but disappoints anyway.

The new release of Apple's desktop operating system is certainly a leap ahead for the Mac platform in many ways. Mac OS X "Lion"-release 10.7-provides a better security architecture, new data encryption options and introduces user interface paradigms that foreshadow a time when gesture-based touch computing will be taken for granted.

There's no question that, technically, Lion is the best release of the Mac operating system ever. But, being a person who dislikes change for the mere sake of change, I'm left underwhelmed at best by many of the latest tweaks to the supporting applications and user interface. Apparently, the goal was to make the Mac UI look more like that of an iPhone or iPad, and Apple has succeeded, for better or worse.

For a look at Lion in action, check out eWEEK Labs' slide gallery, here.

The new operating system apes the iOS user interface paradigms most blatantly in two ways: First, in the Launchpad feature, which assembles a screen with application icons that can be grouped in the same way as iPad and iPhone apps, and second, in the decision to hide one of three Library folders that are critical to the functioning of the OS.

I would almost applaud the latter decision-since it's easy to uncloak the /~user/Library directory from the command line-were it not for the fact that Apple's engineers inexplicably chose to let the /System/Library and the /Library folders remain viewable. I would also argue that the uncloaking feature should be a checkbox option somewhere in the Finder's preferences or view options, but that's almost beside the point.

Perhaps the first thing I looked at after upgrading a MacBook Pro in eWEEK's San Francisco lab to Lion was Launchpad, because it's one of the most obvious additions to the operating system. Although it's quite true that I need another way to access the applications on my computer-and another one to explain to the Mac users whom I support-like I need another hole in my head, I understand what Apple's trying to do with Launchpad, I really do. The company's spokespeople are quite clear that they see the future of the Mac as looking a lot like the way an iPad or iPhone does; Launchpad is a way to introduce the iOS user interface to Apple's desktop users.

My beef with Launchpad has to do with the way that it throws all of one's installed applications onto the screen, as if all applications are somehow equal. Little effort is made to segregate them by publisher or, as I found with installations of Microsoft Office for Mac, by version, even when a folder exists to differentiate one release of a suite from another. Clearly marked uninstaller tools clutter the Launchpad, despite their obvious run-once purpose. In short, Launchpad could have been executed in a much better way, one that doesn't give users another thing to clean up after the upgrade.

Once I'd had enough of Launchpad, I realized that the overall look and feel of the user interface in Lion left me cold. Discarding the rounded, brushed-metal look of the most recent iterations of Mac OS X for a flat, gray, squared-off 2D appearance might hew to the "make it look like iOS" mandate, but I'm not sure it's for the better. The default window appearance, without familiar GUI features that Apple's computers have historically offered, is disconcerting, but it's possible that the classic user interface paradigms of slider bars and arrow buttons were on their last legs anyway. Admittedly, they're rather awkward for a touch-based device.

As well as supporting gesture-based window manipulation, Lion offers operating-system-level versioning and automatic save features that, until now, have been left to application designers to implement. This would call for congratulations all around, until one realizes that it may take software vendors months to enable these features in their applications.

New Networking Options

The AirDrop file transmission software is a nifty way to move data from one machine to another, but it's useful only if everyone around you has a Mac, and even then, only if they have recent implementations of WiFi networking chips that include WiFi Direct. Apple first introduced the necessary hardware in late 2008 models of the MacBook and MacBook Pro, although it took the company almost two years to offer it across all Mac product lines. Eventually, a question for business IT staff has to be: Is the convenience of AirDrop/WiFi Direct worth the security risk? Right now, that risk is merely conceptual, but in computer security, today's concepts are tomorrow's vulnerabilities.

Other features in Lion have taken a step backward, such as the Boot Camp feature that allows users to install Windows on a Mac in a dual-boot configuration. Boot Camp previously supported Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Vista, as well as Microsoft's current desktop and notebook OS, Windows 7. Users lose the ability to create new installations of Windows XP or Vista after upgrading to Lion.

Corporate users who use the Time Machine feature of Mac OS X to back up to a NAS device will want to double-check with their IT departments and should plan to hold off upgrading until September, if not later. Lion no longer supports an authentication method that Linux-based NAS devices typically use when offering Time Machine services. Although this can be restored by anyone with administrator access to the system, that's not something I'd want to leave enabled for any longer than necessary.

I'll give credit to Apple for finally getting one feature right in Mac OS X Lion: FileVault, which debuted in Panther (Mac OS X 10.3). Four major releases of the OS later, users are at last able to encrypt removable media. FileVault in Lion also offers full-disk encryption, where previous versions had only encrypted the user's home directory.

All around, Lion incorporates a number of improvements to the Mac platform, and Apple lists more than 250 of these on the OS product page. If it were just a matter of counting through these, I'd say there's more to like in Lion than dislike. But it's telling that my reactions to features such as Hide the Library, Launchpad and AirDrop are as visceral as they are, if only because they violate what I consider to be cardinal rules of computing, by making things more complicated for so little in return. In Mac OS X Lion, I have seen the future, and I'll probably get used to it someday.