Innovations in Apple's OS X Lion

I downloaded the latest version of the Apple computer operating system - OS X Lion - the day it came out and have used it since. It has a number of unique design elements in it that I think deserve some analysis.

Install: The most dramatic innovation you first experience is that the installation of this version of the operating system isn't done with CD/DVDs, it doesn't involve going to a website, providing a bunch of parameters, downloading it and then trying to find it to start the install. No, Apple has made the purchase and installation of the new OS dead simple by using its Mac App Store.  The App Store itself is noteworthy in its own right as an amazing advance in the simplification of human-computer interaction. To install Lion, you simply click on the $29.95 price button which then turns to the install button after which you see the familiar animation indicating that the download has begun. After it downloads, you simply complete the install and you're done. By keeping the price so low and making the installation so simple and painless, Apple also ensures that virtually everyone will upgrade. That, in turn, keeps systems secure, makes it easier for developers to use the latest features knowing that users will be able to use them, and it also makes a lot of money for Apple given the volume of sales. 

Features: The Lion release includes a number of enhancements to individual apps and the ways specific aspects of the OS works. I love using FaceTime and really appreciate its ability to use HD, the new ability to flip between landscape and portrait mode, and the full screen view. The experience of having a FaceTime session with someone using HD and full screen is almost like being there. I like the enhancements to the Launchpad and Mission Control but still think they could be even further improved. I use Preview a lot, mostly for working with screen captures. I noticed in Lion that Preview can actually now add digital signatures to PDF documents by holding the signature up to the camera. Cool. Although I haven't use it yet, the ability to simply detect other Macs and send files to them via AirDrop also looks to be useful and efficient.

Pervasive Enhancements: While the individual features are interesting and valuable, it is in the OS wide pervasive enhancements where I see the real innovation. It is clear that Apple is trying to create a simple, natural, intuitive, and consistent user experience for all of its devices. Also noteworthy is the fact that they are designing for the novice user first with the most important and pervasive devices. The iPhone and iPad are computers for all people, not just ones that have been using more traditional computers. Apple is therefore trying to create and is being insanely successful at doing so, a new default user experience for all devices. While it is leading in this with its iOS mobile operating system user interface, the Lion release of its traditional computer brings its user interface in line with the iOS one.

The direction of scrolling is a perfect example. With the Lion release, the default scrolling gesture and action is now consistent with that of iOS. This is jarring at first and must have led to millions of Mac users being pretty clumsy and unproductive for a while after installing Lion. However, once you get used to it, the change makes so much sense. If you aren't yet used to the change, I found simply imagining the screen as a piece of paper that you're moving helped me make the transition. Full screen apps are another Lion enhancement that brings parity with iOS. I don't typically use anything in full screen mode because I also have a large screen but then I'm not the target audience either. I only use this feature if I'm reading a document or something that I'd like to be able to focus and get rid of visual distractions. Auto save is another feature that makes so much sense and is perfect for the notice user. I quite like it but found that I had to change my workflow to prevent losing work. For example, I often create presentations by starting with an existing one and then modifying it. In Lion, you have to explicitly make a duplicate first or else you'll be modifying the original presentation. The multi-touch gestures take a bit of getting used to but once you do, I think they're incredibly useful and efficient.

Interestingly, two of the enhancements I most appreciate in Lion aren't typically talked about in reviews. I work with designers every day and review designs typically in the form of screen shots. When I've tried to hone in on the visual and colors in the screen shots I've always been distracted by what appeared to look like light blue pieces of rope.  Of course those gaudy visuals were in fact the OS X scroll bars. I always thought it strange when Apple is so good at design, that they so messed up that aspect of their OS design. I fixed the problem somewhat previously by selecting the grey OS X theme but I was delighted to see that Lion now not only uses a much smaller grey scroll bar as the default, it also has adopted the iOS approach to only showing a scroll bar when the user wants to scroll. These changes have really cleaned up the OS user interface. The last enhancement I'd like to mention is virtually never mentioned or at least explained by Apple at all. However, it has made a significant difference in my productivity. That change has to do with Apple adopting the Microsoft Windows method of resizing windows. After having moved to the Mac, I could never understand why OS X forced users to resize windows by grabbing the bottom right corner only. The Windows world has always had the ability to resize from any corner or side of a window. It's nice to see that Apple is willing to make changes like this even though they don't like talking about them.

Overall, I've been very pleased with OS X Lion both as a user and also as a member of the industry that will benefit from the ways that Apple is driving levels of design never seen previously.