The Future of the Mac After Lion

I’ve spent the past few weeks using a telephoto lens to zoom in on OS X Lion, examining all its nooks and crannies. For a change of pace, I’ve decided to shift to my wide-angle lens and look at the bigger picture: Where exactly is Apple heading with Lion? What can the new version of OS X tell us about the future of the Mac?

In my opinion, Mac OS X Lion represents a major turning point for Apple. I believe it is the most significant upgrade to Mac OS X since its initial release. My conclusion is not based on the number nor quality of the new features in Lion. Rather, I base it on the “message” carried by the most notable changes in the new OS. That message is: “iOS-ification,” the implementation in Mac OS X of features and philosophy originating in iOS.

To see examples of specific iOS-based features, look at Launchpad, full-screen apps, Mac App Store, Resume, the expansion of multi-touch gestures, and sandboxing of apps. For many Mac users, these will be welcome additions, importing to the Mac the best of what made the iPad such a hit. They will agree with Apple’s implied view that these new features offer improved security and hide unneeded technical details from the typical user. Others will see these features in a negative light. They will complain that Lion constrains access to the contents of your drive and to helpful technical features. To these critics, the result is a “dumbed down” version of Mac OS X.

Regardless of your viewpoint (and I fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes), there is no doubt that Lion has introduced some obstacles to previously available technical data and features. Here are a few examples…

Lion hide-and-seek

When you select More Info in About This Mac in Lion, you no longer get the detailed system report that appeared in Snow Leopard. It’s still there — it just takes a bit more effort to find it. As noted by Melissa Holt, you can get to it by clicking the System Report button in the Overview display — or by holding down the Option key and selecting System Information from the Apple menu.

As noted by John Martellaro, Safari 5.1’s display of cookie data, in Preferences > Privacy > Details, no longer lists the details of expiration dates, contents, etc. you saw in the 5.0 version. To access this information, you must now go through a convoluted series of steps that begins with enabling the “Show Develop menu in menu bar” option in Preferences > Advanced. [Safari 5.1 also runs in Snow Leopard.]

The Home directory’s Library folder is now invisible in Lion. You can still access it, if desired. In fact, as pointed out by Dan Frakes, there are at least 19 ways to go there. For example, as I cited in a previous column, if you hold down the Option key when selecting the Go menu in the Finder, a Library option will appear.

As explained by Apple, “Many folders in the System domain that were previously owned by the admin group are now owned by the wheel group.” This includes the Applications folder. One consequence of this is that it is now more difficult to remove files from Applications. Simply dragging an application icon to your Desktop, for example, just creates an alias of the file. You’ll need to Command-drag (and possibly authenticate as well). In the case of some programs pre-installed by Lion, even a Command-drag may be rejected.

You may have also discovered that the Lion installer application is moved to the Trash after the installation is over. Unless you remember to save it, you’ll have to redownload it from the Mac App Store if you need it again (typically this requires holding down the Option key when selecting the Purchases category).

Even Mac OS X Lion Server, which is not intended for casual users, apparently shows the effect of this same trend. As John Rizzo writes in InfoWorld, “It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Lion Server is not built for those of us in IT. Many routine tasks that were formerly a mouse click away now can be accomplished only via the Unix shell command line. Worse yet, some routine tasks are no longer possible at all.” 

A look back

To appreciate why these changes represent a dramatic shift in Apple’s direction, we first need to take a brief trip back in time, to the origins of Mac OS X more than a decade ago.

Mac OS X 10.0 was derived from the NeXT OS, which itself was a shell built over a UNIX base. The major innovation in the initial release of Mac OS X was Aqua, the graphical user interface (GUI) that gave Mac OS X a look and feel that was familiar and comfortable to existing Mac users — and generally easier to navigate than NeXT. Even at this early stage, Apple began this game of hiding the more technical underbelly of the OS from the casual user. Case in point: The UNIX directories were invisible in Aqua. For those who sought access to the UNIX level, Apple offered the Terminal application. This decision seemed entirely reasonable, and I don’t recall hearing any complaints from users on either side of the fence.

Over the following years, Apple has kept pushing in this same direction. For example, Mac OS X’s über-technical Directory Utility (and its NetInfo Manager predecessor) were initially located in /Applications/Utilities. Starting with Snow Leopard, Apple changed things so that accessing Directory Utility now requires a ten-step procedure that begins with a trip to the Accounts (Users and Groups, in Lion) System Preferences pane. Again, as most users will never touch this utility (other than perhaps to enable the root user), there have been few, if any, objections to this move.

Back to the present

With Lion (as I have already indicated), this trend has become much more aggressive. This is more than just a quantitative increase. There is a qualitative philosophical shift as well.

Prior to Lion, there has been a tacit assumption that the first priority of an operating system, any operating system, is to accommodate those at the more technically-skilled end of the spectrum. With the Mac, it is certainly true that OS X provides a GUI designed to appeal to lesser skilled users, the so-called “rest of us.” This has always been a major part of the Mac interface. But, in the end, there remained a sense in which the burden was on novice users to stay out of trouble. The Library folder in the Home directory remained visible for ease of access for troubleshooting and such. Users who didn’t know what to make of this folder, and were perhaps intimidated by its contents, were simply advised to stay away.

No more. 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. It’s hard to argue with this logic. In fact, I’m a bit surprised Apple took this long to get here. But here we are.

Like it or not, things are only going to get worse (or better, depending upon your perspective). Future iterations of Mac OS X will be more and more “consumer-friendly” — as in “like an iPad.” In contrast, the options to tinker with lower levels of the OS or customize the OS in ways not supported by Apple will steadily diminish — again, as in “like an iPad.” As I wrote in a previous column, we may even be looking at the eventual deprecating of the Finder.

One more thing: the Mac Pro

What does all of this imply about the future of the Mac Pro?

For the moment, the Mac Pro is the only model in Apple’s line-up that has not yet been updated to include a Thunderbolt port. Is such an update coming? My guess is yes, almost certainly; probably next month. Despite the fact that the Mac Pro makes up only a small percentage of Mac sales, it retains advantages that no other Mac can match. It’s the only Mac where you still have easy access to the internals, where you have an option for two internal optical drives (as opposed to the Mac mini and MacBook Air, which come with zero), that can have as many as 4 internal hard drives, that can accommodate PCI cards, and (unlike the iMac) gives you the flexibility to choose your own display. I don’t believe Apple is ready to abandon the segment of the market that wants such features. At least not yet. But I won’t be shocked if I am wrong.

I still believe the demise of the Mac Pro is coming. Within two years at most, probably sooner. Almost two years ago, I wrote a column titled “Mac Pro: R.I.P.” — where I suggested that the Pro’s days might well be numbered. I was roundly castigated by readers for my prediction. Times have changed. With the arrival of the iPad, the expanding popularity of the MacBook Air, the demise of Xserve, and the almost complete absence of the Mac Pro from any of Apple’s current marketing — you have to wonder. Even Apple’s OS X Lion Server web page predominantly shows the software running on MacBooks and iMacs — not a Mac Pro. Want to buy a Mac with Lion Server pre-installed? You’re directed to the Mac mini rather than the Pro. Suddenly, the demise of the Pro doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

And now there is Mac OS X Lion. This is not an OS built with the Mac Pro in mind. Mac Pro users are not the sort that will welcome or benefit from the shift to increased simplicity and consumer-priority discussed here.

The Apple train is heading in a new direction. It isn’t one where the Pro wants to go. I expect that the end result will be that Apple leaves the Pro off at a station along the way. Sure, Apple will lose some Pro customers that won’t want an iMac as an alternative. But Apple won’t care. There will be more than enough customers staying on board, eager to follow Apple to its new Lion/iPad destination. Or, to use one more metaphor, Apple is evolving to an ever more consumer-oriented company. As a result, the Mac Pro is on the “endangered species” list.