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Lion Operating System

Apple released its new operating system Mac OS X Lion, yesterday. A July released had been announced a few months ago, and I checked just two days ago, but it wasn’t available yet. When Joel got up yesterday morning, he asked if I had downloaded it yet, my clue that the release date had come. Since I was about to leave the house, I had to wait until last night to buy it.

Being able to download the new OS rather than having to buy a disk is a great convenience. In fact, in a first for Apple, one must download it. Disks are in the past. You want it, you go to the online App Store, buy it, and wait for it to download. And wait I did, for hours. It was the slowest download I can remember. As far as I can tell, this was due to the huge demand on Apple’s servers. I had two experiences today that were different. Last night’s download was for my iMac. This morning, when I tried to download it for my MacBook Air, I got repeated error messages — error 500 for their internal server. The demand, I gather, was so large that my request was denied. Late this afternoon, in contrast, I was able to download it in a snap. I should explain that once you’ve downloaded the OS, you have another wait for installation, a wait of maybe 20-30 minutes.

Is it worth it? I haven’t used the OS enough to have any strong opinions, but it’s a bargain compared to past OS updates, which typically have cost on the order of $100, or maybe $150 or $180 for a family pack that would allow installation on 5 machines in one home, or something along those lines. Lion costs $30, and this covers downloads to multiple machines. If there’s even one feature you consider a significant convenience or improvement and if you have several computers, you can’t go wrong.

Reviews can be found everywhere today: Jason Snell at MacWorld, David Pogue at the NYT, Walt Mossberg at the WSJ. I haven’t looked at Snell’s piece yet.

I’ll comment on four features I’ve been using so far today:

1. Scrolling. Lion brings multi-touch gestures to the Mac to make its use more like that of the iPad. Some of these gestures were already available, such as two-finger up-and-down motions on mouse or touchpad for scrolling. But the scrolling direction has been switched. This may seem like a puzzler at first, and I’m working to get used to it, but it makes good sense. Before, when you made the two-finger downward gesture in a window, you produced the same effect as grabbing the scrollbar on the right side of the window and dragging it down. Metaphorically, you were to imagine that you had grabbed that scrollbar and were pulling it down with your fingers. Of course, when you pull the scrollbar down, you advance toward the end of the page, so the page goes up: scrollbar down, page up. That makes some sense, but really, it’s counter-intuitive. And I believe I did find it that way some years ago when I would first make that gesture on my laptop. Why not think of your fingers grabbing the page and pulling it down rather than grabbing that thin scrollbar on the right and pulling it down?

With iPhone and iPad, on which you really do put your fingers on the page, the downward gesture of your fingers drags the page down, meaning the part in view moves toward the top. That’s the only sensible approach. Lion brings that approach to the desktop and laptop computers. Drag two fingers down on mouse or trackpad and the page goes down, revealing text or images higher up. You don’t even see a scrollbar anymore most of the time. It’s hidden. It only appears when you drag, at which point you see it slide up as you drag the page down.

This is much more intuitive, except for the fact that the more natural intuition has been beaten out of me for years. I now have to recover my intuition. But I like it.

2. Spaces and Mission Control. I was a big fan of the old Spaces in recent Mac operating systems. Instead of having layers of windows, I would create 12 “spaces” in a 4×3 array, then pin certain applications to certain spaces: Mail in one space, Safari in another, OmniFocus in still another, iTunes out of the way in a distant space so it can play in the background, LaTex in the lower left corner. Open an app and it reports to its assigned space. Move between spaces by various keyboard commands, including using Control and arrowing around or Control-# to go to the desired space number.

Lion discards this. Instead, it lays out spaces in a row and allows you to move through them with left and right three-finger gestures. Or, you can still jump around with Control and arrows, or Control and numbers. I was happy with the old system and didn’t think I wanted a change, but I have already adapted. Especially attractive is that the dashboard occupies the leftmost space, so you can slide over there easily. Well, the old way of opening the dashboard was easy too. What I like about this is that it’s a full screen in the background, rather than something that bursts open the way the old one did. I don’t get there any faster, but the metaphor works better for me.

Please please please bring this idea to the iPad and iPhone. Let me swipe left and right to switch between apps. Palm’s final OS, for the Palm Pre, had this, or so I read. Now HP, having bought Palm, has introduced it to their mobile OS. Apple, surely you plan to do the same, yes?

3. Full screen. The reviews suggest that this is another idea carried over from the iPad. The point is that you can click on an expansion arrow on the upper right corner of a window (for suitable apps) and it fills the screen, covering up the dock and the menu bar and the background. This allows you to focus on one app at a time. Of course, I already do this by moving my apps to different spaces. But you can focus even more sharply, with nothing else in sight, and you give more space to the window/app itself. On my iMac, this isn’t such a big deal. The feature may be more useful on the MacBook Air, with its tiny screen. I’ve tried it there just for a few minutes, will experiment some more.

4. Mail. There are several changes here, but the one I’m already in love with is the ability to “bookmark” mailboxes. This works just like bookmarks or favorites in Safari. You drag mailboxes to the favorites bar (or whatever Apple is calling it) and they stay there. Or you pull them off. Now, when you want to look up emails in that box, just click on it in the favorites bar at top. If you have only a few mailboxes or a flat hierarchy, who cares. But I have hundreds of boxes and a deep hierarchy. So far I’ve grabbed about a dozen boxes and favorited (?) them.

Now, here’s the real beauty. Just like in Safari, I can hit Command-1 and go to the leftmost favorite box. Or Command-2 and go to the second one. And so on. No need for the mouse. Just as I now go to the NYT and Sports Illustrated in Safari with Command 1 and 2, in Mail I can go to my Comcast and work email inboxes the same way. In the old version of Mail, some of these keyboard commands were fixed — Command 1 went to all inboxes combined, Command 4 to sent mail, and so on. Now I can go to specific inboxes, specific sent mail boxes, or any other boxes.

Complementing this feature, one can toggle between seeing the list of all mailboxes and hiding them, either with the mouse or with Command-Shift M. I’ve already found that with just 10 or 12 favorite mailboxes, I rarely need to see the mailbox list. Note that you can drag an email into the box listed in the favorites bar and it will go in that box. Or, if the box has many boxes within, it shows up in the favorite bar with a dropdown arrow that allows you to see all the subboxes, open one of them, or move an email into one.

So far so good. I’m happy.

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