Will Lion be king of the cats?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his minions showed off a few headline features planned for the next version of Mac OS X at this morning's "Back to the Mac" event. The final release of Mac OS X 10.7 — "Lion" — is planned for the northern summer of 2011, so it's not far away. Yet the highlights we've seen so far look more incremental than revolutionary.

The philosophical drive behind the features demonstrated in Lion is bringing technological lessons learned in developing the multitouch iOS devices back to the Mac. That is, the next version of Mac OS X looks, at least from some angles, much more like an iPad. And I'm not at all sure that's a good thing.

Let's start with the Launchpad idea, with pages of applications as found on iOS devices, arranged in grids of big colourful icons all over the desktop. Pretty. If you haven't got many applications, it might even be a nice way to launch them.

Of course, if you have a lot of applications, and many Mac users do, you're going to end up with a bewildering array of icons out there. The same thing happened on the iPhone, with users downloading and installing many more apps than Apple had envisaged. The solution was first to increase the number of screenfuls of icons you could have, and when that wasn't enough to allow users to create folders to keep their apps sorted. If that's too confusing, go to the Spotlight screen, type in the name of the app you want to use, and tap it.

On the Mac we already have such a system. It's called the Application folder, and inside it you can have a Utilities folder, and a Games folder, and whatever else you want. It works. It's always worked. If you don't like digging in folders you've got the Dock for your main things, and there's always the Spotlight trick (press Command and the space bar, then type a few letters of the name of the application you want to start, and hit return).

I'm prepared to give this some thought over the coming days and weeks, but I have to say, at first blush, it looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Beyond that, there really wasn't much to talk about. Take for example Full Screen Apps, a system in which an application appropriately designed to do so can take over the entire screen, leaving you without so much as a menu bar to remind you you're using a Mac. You know, the way iPhoto '11 can, right now in Snow Leopard. Or, for that matter, the way almost any "serious" game does.

Full Screen Apps aren't actually a feature of Lion.

Then there's the App Store, an iOS-like method for distribution of applications whereby Apple becomes the conduit for developers to get their wares onto people's computers. This could be a good thing, in terms of getting developers a quick and easy way to get their apps in front of people, not to mention quick distribution of updates. It could be a bad thing, if Apple ends up being the gatekeeper as it does on iOS and stops some applications being distributed via its App Store.

Either way, it will be available within 90 days, according to Jobs. So it's not a feature of Lion.

Let's not forget FaceTime, the I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-iChat video calling system that Apple is bringing over from the iPhone 4. It's cool, to be sure and once I know anyone who's installed it I'll be sure to have a play with it. I've installed the beta already, tried to place a call from my Mac to my iPhone, and failed. Oh well, it's a beta.

And it's available today. Not exactly waiting for Lion on this one either.

Mission Control looks interesting, as a way to manage multiple apps that are running, including Full Screen applications, multiple-window applications, even Dashboard widgets (and I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing Dashboard got a bit more attention). It's an enhancement to Exposé and Spaces, and could just as easily have been added to 10.6 — I don't see anything architectural about Mission Control that requires it to be a part of a new operating system.

I'm not saying the demo today wasn't impressive — it was, and I'm sure some of these features will enhance the way I work with my Mac. But I was hoping to see something that made me look forward to Lion with bated breath. Something that made me think the next version of Mac OS X was going to be a big leap forward.

What I saw looks more like Mac OS X 10.6.5. Sure, Mac OS X is a stable, mature operating system now, and it's not lacking big things like a backup system or file encryption, or a search function — the stuff that headlined previous OS X revisions has already been done and doesn't need to be done again.

But Apple's business is innovation. It sells revolution as much as it sells technology. Apple is a company that changes the world. Maybe that's an unfair bar to set, but it's a bar Apple set for itself. Today's preview was not a revolution.

Before this Lion can walk with pride, it's going to need some more teeth.

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