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

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

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The new MacBook Airs

As expected, Apple introduced two new MacBook Air models that feature several weight-reduction design elements borrowed from the iPad. With 13.3-in. and 11.6-in. displays, both models weigh less than three pounds (2.9 and 2.3 pounds, respectively) and measure less than an inch thick (0.68 in. at their thickest point and 0.11 in. at the thinnest). Eschewing both optical drives and HDD drives, they use only SSD flash storage, which is built right onto the board rather than fitted into a hard drive slot.

Although there's no iPad-style touch screen, the new models do sport a full-size glass track pad (already found on other MacBook models) that supports multi-touch gestures (swiping with varying finger combinations, rotating content, pinch to zoom, etc.) as well as a full-size keyboard. They ship with 2GB of RAM, the Nvidia GeForce 320m graphics chipset and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor (1.4GHz in the 11.6-in. model and 1.86GHz in the 13.3-in. model).

MacBook Airs in two sizes
The new MacBook Airs in two sizes (courtesy Apple).

Prices range from $999 for an 11.6-in. model with 64GB of storage to $1,599 for the 13.3-in. model with 256GB of storage.

Jobs has repeatedly said that Apple wouldn't launch a netbook, but the size, weight and battery life of the new Airs (Apple claims 7 hours for the 13.3-in. model and 5 hours for the 11.6-in.) will draw inevitable comparisons to netbooks. While the new Airs aren't likely to win any speed tests against other Mac notebooks (or indeed many PC laptops), their specs do put them ahead of mainstream netbooks when it comes to power and performance.

The 11.6-in. model in particular gives Apple an entry into the sub-notebook space at a much lower entry price than the previous generation of MacBook Airs. It will be interesting to see how these fare in the market compared to iPads.

Enter the Lion

The big news, of course, was Mac OS X 10.7, a.k.a. Lion. Slated for a release next summer, Apple's preview of its new desktop OS focused mostly on features borrowed from the company's iOS devices:

  • More advanced use of multi-touch gestures
  • A Mac App Store
  • The ability for apps to auto-save work and auto-resume to their last-used point when relaunched
  • Apps that operate in full-screen mode rather than in windows
  • A feature called Launchpad with functionality similar to an iPad's home screen
  • A feature called Mission Control that combines elements of Exposé, Dashboard, Spaces and full-screen apps

Judging from tweets sent during the event, I'm not the only one who had some misgivings when Jobs said that part of the meaning of "Back to the Mac" was bringing iOS components into Mac OS X. The rest of the demo left me feeling somewhat confident that Apple is doing this in a smart way, although I'll hold off any further endorsement until I can spend some serious time with these features.

Multi-touch gestures

Apple believes that users don't want to interact with their desktop and notebook computers via a touch-screen as they do an iPhone. It's not ergonomic, Jobs said, and most desktop applications are simply not built for that kind of input.

Instead, the company is focusing on the multi-touch interfaces it already makes for Macs: the larger glass trackpad in MacBooks, the year-old Magic Mouse that blends a touch interface with a traditional computer mouse, and the more recent Magic Trackpad. I think this makes a lot of sense; Apple's proven that it can incorporate multi-touch effectively using these types of devices.

My concern is that multi-touch gestures (as well as some of the other interface changes planned for Lion, which I'll get to shortly) may seem overly complicated to new Mac users. If the new users come with experience using an iPhone or iPad, they shouldn't have problems, but I'm worried about less tech-savvy individuals who buy a Mac thinking it's just easier than Windows (and who can blame them, given that this has been Apple's marketing stance for some time now?). Admittedly, Apple's retail stores are great at user education and may be able to absorb some of the challenge.

I'm also concerned how multi-touch gestures will play out with users who prefer non-Apple input devices, as well as for those who use older MacBooks that don't include the current large multi-touch trackpad. (Apple continued to sell such notebooks into 2009.) If significant multi-touch features in Lion won't be supported on these systems, it could certainly add fuel to the fire for those who complain that Apple creates closed ecosystems that force upgrades.

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