Set to ship next summer, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion is the eighth major version of OS X. And it will borrow everything that's good from Apple's other OS, iOS.
"We started with Mac OS X, repurposed it for the iPhone and used it in the iPad as well. "Now we're bringing some of the ideas back to the Mac," said Apple CEO, Steve Jobs. "Lion has a ton of new features, and we hope the few we had time to preview will give users a good idea of where we are headed," Jobs said.
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Highlights include the Mac App Store, Launchpad, fullscreen applications, Mission Control, Auto Save and Resume, and more. Jobs also went on to respond to speculation that Apple intends making touch-sensitive Macs: this is both true and false.
Jobs admitted Apple has been working on this, but said touch surfaces "don't want to be vertical," because a user's arm will get tired pretty fast. As such, Apple's answer to using touch as part of the user interface (UI) of Mac OS X comes in the form of Multi-Touch, via the Magic Mouse and the Magic Trackpad.
2011 is the 10th anniversary of Mac OS X. On launch, it boasted industry-leading features: full-colour scalable graphics, text and graphics anti-aliasing, the Dock and more. Lion seems set to maintain that lead.
Apple's world-class OS scales between phones, tablets and computing devices. But how does this compare with others?
Microsoft recommends avoiding using Windows Phone 7 on tablets, promising it is developing its own "rich touch and applications experience" for tablets. Microsoft will focus on bringing a low-power version of its PC platform to market for these.
However, this is creating confusion: while Apple has a clear division between iOS and Mac OS X, cross-pollinating as appropriate between the systems, Microsoft has three, all called Windows…
Similarly, Google continues to achieve success with Android, and manufacturers are already introducing tablets running Android.
Linux, meanwhile, continues to go from strength to strength, but the open source system still lacks a major footprint in consumer markets.
We're at a nexus point for the OS and app development. Full-screen windows will deepen our relationship with our apps. A great app should "tell a story with a screenshot," said Chicago Times Apple pundit, Andy Ihnatko. In the future, if you can't tell how an app works just by looking at its screen, then it will be an interface failure.
Borrowed from iOS, Launchpad is like a Home screen and will show you all your available applications. This underlines Lion's focus on convenience, usability and the interface.
Lion may be remembered as a step toward developing non-hierarchical file management for computers. Ultimately, Apple is creating a common environment across all its devices, proving Mac OS X a highly flexible, powerful and modern OS.
Developers welcomed what they saw. "Lion looks interesting, but I think it's still too early to tell how it's going to turn out," said DragThing founder James Thomson. "From a developer perspective, anything that makes it easier for developers to build apps for both Mac OS and iOS would be welcome. My main hope is that we'll see something like UIKit (the iOS UI framework) as part of Lion."
Bare Bones Software founder and CEO, Rich Siegel said: "The truth is that it's far too early to do much more than project, like a good Rorschach test, until we see the first seed."
The Mac App Store may change everything, and some developers are worried Apple may demand all Mac software is sold this way, locking them out of the platform.
"We will need to make a separate version of each app for delivery to the App Store," observed Siegel. "The Mac App Store represents an opportunity to put our products in front of a larger audience," he said.
"I have mixed emotions about the Mac App Store, but it's not a shock," said Thomson. "As soon as the iOS store was a success it was inevitable."
He's concerned at app review, though, noting: "A lot of apps might not even be approved under the guidelines." A case in point is his own app, DragThing, which could be seen as overlapping functions of the Finder and Dock.
Lukas Mathis is a developer who builds apps for different operating systems on his Mac. He thinks the Mac App Store will be a "game-changer" and will make the Mac apps market "vastly larger" than the audience for consumer Windows apps.
His problem with the App Store? The challenge of app discovery amid a sea of mediocre apps, he said, urging Apple to ensure quality control.
This power to reject worries Rixstep, who warned an App Store for Mac was on the way last summer. They are concerned Apple may demand all Mac software be sold via the store. "We don't believe things will stop as they're currently announced. We believe the longterm goal is to bind all third-party software to the platform," a company spokesman said.
What effect could this have? "We've been selling PCalc for iOS for over two years now, so we're used to the limitations," said Thomson. "Mainly the delays in shipping new versions caused by the approval process and the race to 59p pricing. But PCalc makes more on the iPhone and iPad than on the Mac."
It's almost 10 years since its launch, and OS X remains built on the object-oriented operating system NeXTSTEP, itself developed at Jobs' second computer company, NeXT.
While NeXT hardware proved too expensive for mass-market adoption, it generated powerful software technologies, such as WebObjects and the object-oriented programming language which we now know as Cocoa. Apple was foundering. Mac OS was dated, unwieldy and reaching the limit of what it could do.
The company had been working to develop its own OS, Copland, but it came to nothing. They then acquired NeXT in 1997. The first version of Mac OS X shipped in March 2001. Has it changed things?
Snow Leopard reached twice as many users as Leopard. Apple is now the fourth biggest US PC maker, and if you add OS X-based iPads to its sales it is arguably the biggest 'PC' maker in the world.
The Lion launch also saw Apple debut the MacBook Air, which ships without Flash preinstalled; an Apple tech note also confirmed the company won't be shipping its own Java runtimes in future iterations of OS X.
In future, Mac users wanting to use either standard will need to download the most recent Mac versions from standard developers.
The lack of Java could be a problem, noted Mathis. "As a developer who uses Mac OS X to write non-Mac apps, I was unhappy to hear Apple will stop supporting its version of Java. While most don't rely on Java on Macs, developers use Java-based IDE's to write server-side apps, and apps for Android and other mobile platforms.
"When Mac OS X first launched, Apple spread the message of open standards and flexibility. Java was a popular objectoriented programming language, so Apple worked to improve Mac Java support. Oracle now owns Java, following the acquisition of Sun Microsystems.
"Presumably, we'll get a usable replacement for Apple's Java by the time Lion hits, but it would be nice if Apple helped us by open-sourcing its own version of Java, and letting us maintain it," notes Mathis.
We'll see questions like these answered as Apple approaches summer 2011, particularly when it attempts to excite attendees at the Worldwide Developer's Conference.
The top 5 features of OS X 10.7 Lion
01. The Mac App Store
Apple's Mac App Store will let you browse, purchase and download apps from Apple and other sources directly to your Mac. You'll be able to install software you purchase on all your personal Macs, while developers take 70% of their revenue.
Granted, this will make it easier than ever to purchase software for your Mac, but titles sold here will have to pass through the App Store approval system. You'll still be able to buy software elsewhere. The store will open for Snow Leopard users in weeks.
02. Touch to find
Lion's new Mission Control feature will make it easier than ever to navigate through your open windows, applications, Spaces and Exposé. You'll navigate through these using flicking gestures, just like an iPad.
iTunes users may feel a little as if they're using Cover Flow. Accessed via the Dock, Launchpad will be a flick-through screen showing icons for your apps. Like an iPad, you'll be able to organise icons as you wish and also gather these inside custom folders.
Apple has rebranded iSight cameras as FaceTime cameras, and Lion will integrate FaceTime chat.
Currently available in beta, FaceTime will let Mac users initiate video chat with any iPhone, iPod touch or Mac user, via Wi-Fi. In future you can expect FaceTime support via 3G networks, although we can't say when.
04. Full-screen apps
Mac OS X Lion will bring Mac users system-wide support for full-screen applications, maximising screen space – a bonus for creative users. You'll be able to enter full-screen mode with just one click, and – with a focus on touch – switch from one full-screen app to another with just a swipe of the trackpad.
05. Window change
Lion borrows from iOS when it comes application window behaviour. As some demo windows show, you'll see discreet scroll bars that appear when you initiate a swipe gesture, much like on an iPad. The bright Aqua scroll bars are replaced by these sleek strips. You can also resize Lion's windows from any corner.