Apple's Lion: A marriage of iOS and OS X

Is incorporating iPad features into Macs a good thing? Maybe.

Apple's Back to the Mac event yesterday was preceded by plenty of speculation. Some of it was dead on -- such as predictions of revamped MacBook Air models -- while some of it missed the mark a bit: Apple didn't unveil a touch-screen iMac (in fact, CEO Steve Jobs referred to the idea as "ergonomically horrible") and, while FaceTime is coming to the Mac, it is as a standalone application, not as part of iChat.

Steve Jobs and a Lion
Steve Jobs introduces Lion (courtesy Macworld).

Without a doubt, the biggest news was the preview of the next version of Mac OS X, known as Lion (which leaves very few big cats left for future releases). There has been speculation for months that Apple might begin bundling iOS features into the Mac; some even suggested that Apple would replace Mac OS X with iOS. While the latter certainly didn't happen, we learned yesterday that Lion will incorporate some key iOS functionality, for better or worse.

Let's take a look at the major themes and announcements first, then dig into what Lion may mean for Mac users going forward. Finally, we'll close with some thoughts on iLife '11, which also made its debut yesterday.

The Mac is still important to Apple

With all the recent focus on the iPad, iPhone 4, fourth-generation iPod touch and Apple TV, the Mac has started to seem like Apple's redheaded stepchild. However, Apple COO Tim Cook made it very clear that the Mac is still a key part of Apple's business, having accounted for a third of Apple's revenue in the company's recently closed fiscal year. There are nearly 50 million Mac users worldwide, he said, and Mac sales are three times as large as they were just five years ago -- largely owing to Apple's retail stores.

Cook also highlighted that there are currently 600,000 registered Mac developers and that the company is adding an average of 30,000 developers each month. I can't help but think that this incredible upswing in registered developers is related to Apple's decision to reduce the individual membership in its Mac developer program (which comes with a slate of training, documentation and resources for developers) from its previous $499/year price tag to just $99/year.

Clearly, despite the success of iOS and Apple's business as a music, movie/TV, and e-book reseller, the company still sees the Mac as a core part of its business.

FaceTime gets ready for its close-up

Many users have been hoping Apple would make FaceTime video calling available to a wider audience than just iPhone 4 and fourth-generation iPod touch owners. While most commentators surmised that Apple would build FaceTime into iChat, it turns out that FaceTime will be a separate application (for now, anyway). Given that most Macs include a built-in camera for video chat and taking photos, this is a natural way to extend FaceTime to a larger audience.

In beta now, FaceTime is available for download from Apple's site. It has potential both for keeping up with friends and family and for conducting virtual business meetings. It will be interesting to see if Apple keeps FaceTime limited to two-party calls or expands it to the multi-party calls that iChat supports.

It will also be interesting to see if Apple bundles FaceTime into the next generation of Mac OS X Server; current and previous releases include a free IM/voice/video chat feature based on the open source Jabber protocol dubbed iChat Server. As Snow Leopard Server and the Mac Mini server hardware provide a simple and very low-cost server solution for small business or workgroups in a larger organization, FaceTime could become a powerful selling point for the platform.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs spoke with Phil Schiller using the company's FaceTime software, which is available in beta for Macs with OS X 10.6.

It's worth noting that despite Apple's attempt to push the FaceTime protocol as an open standard that could have compatible apps for Windows 7 and/or Android devices, FaceTime remains an Apple-only technology, while competing products such as Tango and Yahoo Messenger offer broader video calling capability: iOS to Android in the case of Tango and iOS to Android or desktops in the case of Yahoo Messenger.

An interesting side note is that Apple's slides and details about the new MacBook Air refer to the built-in camera as a FaceTime camera instead of the iSight moniker that Apple has used up to this point.

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