Some thoughts on OSX Lion and how we got here


I come to the Mac from a strange place. I’m not a ‘switcher’ in the sense that I am not a consumer user who when it came time to upgrade an aging Windows PC decided to try out a Mac. In fact I was very reluctant. Fortunately I have impeccable timing.

I can still recall very clearly the first time I saw a Mac (the original) and I can also recall seeing a Lisa very early on. In both cases they were in stores, the Lisa I don’t think was even powered on, sitting in what I think was the business center of Sears, back when Sears sold computers. The Mac was on, and I was able to play with it for awhile, I was enchanted with Paint. From that point on I lusted for a mouse, not necessarily a Mac as it was well out of any reasonable price range for my household. We did get a PC fairly early on, a Panasonic ‘luggable’ monster, and years before that we had a TI-99 4a that was the machine I cut my teeth on as a programmer.

PCs were where it was at for me, with a detour into Amiga land. But then there was NeXT and the cube. This was a damn exciting piece of hardware and software, and again entirely out of my reach. It was released while I was in college, and I read avidly about it, but it dropped out of mind as I moved on and started doing commercial development work on top of DOS and then Windows. I moved to Windows NT in the 3.1 era (1993–94 I believe) and from then forward Windows was unquestionably ahead on the engineering side of things.

More recently Vista got short shrift. I found it to actually be very solid when run on new hardware and configured well. I built an engineering department on it and had no issues that were attributable to Vista at any point. Windows 7 is the best OS Microsoft has ever shipped. It is Vista with only small changes.

All that time I ignored Apple. Yes, I got my iPhone the first week of availability, but I continued to scorn Apple engineering due to the miserable experience that is iTunes on Windows. Proof enough of poor software practices and an often uneven and frustrating user experience.

At the beginning of this year I got my first Mac. Just a Mini, just to play with and see what was going on and to dabble with some iOS app ideas. It was a strange experience for me. At that moment in the evolution of OSX and Windows it was pretty clear that Windows was actually ahead in user experience. For all the praise that gets lavished on Apple for their great design it does sometimes come at a cost (case in point the sharp aluminum edges of my new MacBook Air that are digging into my wrists at the moment…) in actual comfort of the user. The experience of managing lower-case windows on the Mac desktop prior to Lion frankly sucks. Especially in comparison to the ease with which windows in Win 7 can be docked to screen sides and switched between via the task bar. Switching between windows on the Mac is kind of a joke.

But this changes dramatically with Lion. One very simple conceptual change; full screen apps are their own ‘spaces’. Spaces was never a concept your Mom was going to understand. Flipping between programs though, that makes sense. Grandma is doing it on her iPad, right?

When is a Mac not a Mac? The Mac ‘operating system’ was terribly primitive during the 90’s. Even the Win32 based versions of Windows were technically ahead, and there was no comparison with NT. The current Mac internals are something that fascinates me, because it is a NeXT station under there. Obviously this has been the case for about a decade, but I missed the party. I’m glad I did. Now that I’m paying attention the Mac side of things and catching up with how things have evolved I’m pleased with my having missed much of the birthing pains that got us here.

I’m liking Lion a lot, and have a strong preference for apps that use the Lion way of going full screen. Fast switching between apps with a gesture is so natural. It is one of those things that makes you slap your head and wonder why things didn’t always work that way. It is so good that I will take it over multiple monitor setups. This is a big deal; I got my first 21″ monitor in 1994, it was $2000. I started using multi-monitor setups in 1996 when they were rare and exotic. I’ve had at a minimum two 21″ screens for most of the last decade, often three or four. Then nice LCD screens up on arms. I put my money where my eyes go. But now… I’m finding myself surprisingly happy with a single 13″ screen on this Air. Six months ago I would have told you it was impossible.