Discontent with Lion’s “My Way or the Highway” Approach

Hear that noise in the distance? It’s the persistent rumblings of users unhappy about Apple’s “my way or the highway” attitude with many of Mac OS X Lion’s features. And the noise is getting louder.

In several key areas, Apple has changed the OS so that, what used to be under the user’s control, is now determined by the OS itself. Making matters worse, if you don’t happen to agree with Lion’s philosophical approach, there may be no way to disable or work-around the unwanted feature. The final straw is that some of these new features are not fully baked, resulting in problems that thus can’t be avoided.

Lion on Highway

I briefly alluded to this dilemma in a prior column, where I noted that “power users” were especially concerned about Lion’s hide-and seek (such as making the home Library folder invisible): “In Lion, more than in any previous OS version, the priority is given to consumer users. The burden is now on technically-skilled users to find out how to get where they want to go.” What I am talking about now, however, goes several steps beyond merely hiding access to a technical feature.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what other people are saying: 

Auto Save

My initial reaction to Lion’s Auto Save feature was positive: “Under Lion, documents are automatically saved when they close — as well as at regular intervals while you are working with them. This is good. You can say good-bye to having to type Command-S every couple of minutes. You no longer have to remember to save. The OS does it for you.”

However, after reading comments on the Web, I have become considerably more skeptical. A blog posting notes that, if you access your documents from a server, previous versions are not saved (or at least you cannot access them). But auto-saving still occurs. This means that Lion can save a version of a document that you intended to only be temporary, leaving you with no way to revert back to your prior “permanent” version. A 16-page thread in Apple Support Communities cites numerous similar glitches. For example, even for files stored on your Mac, if you crop a photo just as an experiment, the cropped version may be saved automatically. In some cases, users discovered they were unable to revert back to the original unedited version.

Initially, the Revert to Saved option takes you back to the last version where you specifically elected to save (via the Save a Version command in the File menu). That’s how I believed it always worked (which I consider to be ideal). However, postings in the prior cited thread point out that the feature is inconsistent in this regard. You may instead wind up having to select a version from the Versions display. Unfortunately, Versions makes no distinction between auto-saved vs. manually saved copies, potentially making it difficult to locate and revert to the specific copy you want.

Others complain that Auto Save takes irritatingly long when working with large documents. Still others lament the loss of the Save As… command, noting that the new Duplicate option is not as convenient to use.

The consensus is that none of this would matter much — if you could disable Auto Save. If you like how it works, leave things as is. Otherwise, get rid of it. But Lion offers no way to turn Auto Save off. This is the heart of the “my way or the highway” complaint. A posting sums it up: “The new features are intrusive, non-respectful of the users’ choices, and cannot be changed.” 

Automatic termination

Matt Neuberg, writing in TidBITS, describes Lion’s automatic termination feature. Essentially, as described by Apple, Lion can force an application to quit without any action by the user — if the app is currently not active, hasn’t been accessed recently and has no windows visible to the user. Any documents open at the time will, of course, be auto-saved on quit. When the app quits, its icon vanishes from both the switcher list that you access via Command-Tab and (if it is not a permanent icon) the Dock. 

If you are working with several applications at once, this behavior can obviously be disconcerting. Matt correctly points out that the origin of this approach is iOS. This is more-or-less how things work on iPads and iPhones. It all works reasonably well on iOS devices, as you can only have one active application at a time and an app’s icon remains in the multitasking bar even after it has been quit. This same idea is not well-suited, however, for the Mac’s multi-tasking environment.

Once again, the bottom line complaint is not that the feature exists (it has its good points as well) but that there is no way to turn the feature off. Automatic termination happens whether you like it or not. Matt concludes: “I think of my computer more like a 1960s manual-shift VW Beetle: it does what I tell it, and I can often repair it if things go wrong. Lion makes me feel I’m being chucked out of the driver’s seat.”

Recovery HD

As I have written previously, Recovery HD is one of the great new features in Lion. It allows you to repair a Lion startup drive, or even reinstall Lion, without having to locate and boot from any external media. However, when you examine it more closely, a variety of potential problems begin to emerge.

One issue has already been recognized, and at least partially resolved, by Apple. Apple’s Lion Recovery Disk Assistant allows you to install a Lion Recovery HD partition on a flash drive (or any USB drive) — without having to do a full install of Lion. You’ll want to do this. The drive setup allows you to access Recovery HD in those cases where the Recovery HD partition on your normal Lion startup drive is inaccessible (perhaps because the drive itself is corrupt).

However, even with Lion Recovery Disk Assistant, you may not have all your bases covered. Writing in a Cult of Mac article, David Martin describes how he got stuck in a failed Lion installation: “The end result was loss of my Recovery HD partition – it was stuck inside of the Mac OS X Lion Installer process. That process was an endless loop from which I couldn’t escape every time I tried to access the Recovery HD partition.” Prior to Lion, even a worst-case scenario such as Martin’s would be relatively easy to fix (assuming you were backed up): Boot from the Install DVD (or flash drive), erase the drive, reinstall the OS and restore from your backup. However, as a Lion purchase does not include any self-sufficient external install media, this is not possible. 

Perhaps a better solution would be to get one of the Mac OS X Lion USB sticks, due out any day now. However, as pointed out in another Martin Cult of Mac article, the USB sticks will not work with Macs that ship with Lion (the new MacBook Airs and Mac mini). Users of these Macs are having an especially hard time as their version of Lion is newer than the one available from the Mac App Store. The Mac App Store version will similarly not install on these Macs. This has led to various failures when attempting to restore Lion to these new Macs. Further problems appeared to result from failed network connections, critical as the Lion Recovery HD requires a network connection to download the Mac OS X software.

Mr. Martin concludes: “Users, including myself, would prefer to be able to restore their computers themselves with or without an internet connection or when ever they damn well feel like it.” Once again, the main complaint is that Apple is not giving users this choice. No one wants to see Apple abandon Recovery HD altogether.

Bottom Line

As I said, I’ve covered the overarching story here in prior columns. With Lion, Apple is pushing the Mac in a new direction, one that I have called iOS-ification. Some, mostly new and less-skilled Mac users (perhaps especially ones weaned on the iPad), may be content with Apple’s approach regarding Lion. The attitudes of the rest typically range from reluctant acceptance to minor irritation to utter frustration.

In Apple’s defense, all versions of Mac OS X have had limitations. It’s not fair to expect to be able to turn off or modify every aspect of Lion. You couldn’t do that in Snow Leopard either. Take the Dock for example. Some users don’t like it, substituting a third-party launcher instead. Yet there is no simple way to turn the Dock off. On the other hand, Apple offers considerable flexibility for customizing the Dock. You can move the Dock to the left, bottom or right side of the screen. You can turn magnification on or off. New in Lion, you can even turn off the Dock’s indicator lights for open applications. With utilities such as Cocktail, you can further customize the Dock, such as to enable transparent icons for hidden applications. I don’t see Apple supporting this level of flexibility for the new features in Lion (although check out Lion Tweeks for examples of some things you can do in Lion). It also appears that third-party developers will have a harder time working around Lion’s restrictions.

Apple has a reputation for sticking to its guns in such matters. If asked about these complaints, they might reply: “No matter what we do, there will always be some complaints. We did what we thought was right for the majority of our users. We still think this is the case.” Perhaps they are right. And perhaps, over time, the grumbling noises will begin to fade. However, I expect that Apple will be doing some backpedaling this time — either by modifying these features to address user concerns or allowing users to disable the features. Expect to start seeing this happen whenever Apple gets around to releasing Mac OS X 10.7.1.