It breaks my heart to say this, but Mac OSX Lion's interface feels like a failure. Its stated mission was to simplify the operating system, to unify it with the clean experience of iOS. That didn't happen.
If it weren't for the fast, rock-solid Unix, graphics and networking cores, Lion would be Apple's very own Vista.
The path to a simpler future
When Steve Jobs first introduced Lion, he set a bold goal: to take what has made the iPad and the iPhone so successful and bring it to the desktop. There's nothing wrong with that. The simplification of the computer experience—which actually gives more power to the users by allowing them to focus on their work instead of screwing around with their machine to make it do what they want—has been the Holy Grail of computers since the 80s.
It happened then, when we switched from the command line to the graphical desktop. (For the complete history of this evolution, read this). But in the last three decades computers have again become too complicated for a lot of people. The rest of us put up with it because we've gone through years of conditioning, but most people don't know any conventions and shortcuts accumulated over two decades—the layers upon layers of user interface, patched one on top of another.
That's why the iPad and the iPhone have been so amazing. They were clean slates that kicked all those conventions to the curb. The result is a simple, powerful environment. It's awesome. It is the future.
Lion is the wrong step into that future. By trying to please everyone, the OS X team has produced an incongruent user interface pastiche that won't satisfy the consumers seeking simplicity nor the professional users in search of OCD control. Apple hasn't really targeted a specific population. Or provided varying levels of user control—a super-simple modal interface for normal people and pro-level classic window interface for nerds. That's what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8. Ironically, if Apple had taken a page out of Microsoft's book in this case, it would have been a step in the right direction.
Lots of good intentions
The first time I started Lion I was expecting Launchpad to take over the screen, like the iPad. Apple touted it as the new way to launch your apps. The combined theory of Lion-iOS-iCloud is good, almost magic: Launchpad to access your apps, apps to access your documents which, eventually, would all be in the cloud and accessible from all your devices. Eliminating the physical desktop metaphor completely, the same way Gmail has eliminated the need to have mail folders. With current instant-search technology, there's no need for anal folder organization. Advanced users and other masochists would still have access to their Finders for the time being, of course, just like Microsoft is doing with Windows 8.
That could have made a lot of sense for everyone involved. But what Apple did doesn't compute: Launchpad is supposedly the way to access all your apps, but who wants to click once on the dock's Launchpad icon, launch that interface, and then select your app when you can just open the app from the Finder itself? It's an extra click (or two or three). It's added complexity; it's superfluous.
That's one part of Lion's multiple personality problem. Mission Control along with Full Screen apps is another. Mission Control is touted by Apple as the perfect merger of Exposé and Spaces. Beloved by advanced users, Exposé and Spaces are great productivity tools in Leopard. The first allows you to quickly select apps and windows. Spaces helps pro users organize work environments, by grouping different app windows all floating on different desktops.
The way they mixed it (check the video for a better understanding) may work for advanced users, but it is way too complicated for consumers. It feels like a broken bridge between the modal world and the windowed world.
By default, there's a Dashboard Space, where all widgets live, like in the current Mac OS X. Then there is a Desktop Space, where the windowed apps exist. Again, this is like in Leopard. In Lion there could be multiple desktops grouping different apps, all set by the user. And finally, there is Full Screen App Space, which results in multiple spaces too, one per app taking over the whole screen. iPhoto, Preview and many system apps can run full screen at this point.
This is not a bad idea per se. When you work only with Full Screen Apps it all makes perfect sense. It's very easy and smooth to move from one app to the other swiping your three or four fingers left or right. Your mind switches tasks as you move from app to app. I mostly work with Photoshop, my tabbed browser, iMovie/FCP and Mail. Add iPhoto for my personal 70,000-photo album and iTunes for about 12,000 songs. It'd be very convenient for me to switch through full screen versions of these apps. I like the simplicity and the clarity it brings.
But when you add Desktop Spaces and the Dashboard Space, it all becomes a mêlée of windows, desktops, squares, Dashboard widgets and icons. When you get into Mission Control by swiping three fingers up, you get a new clusterfuck that is added to the traditional windowed clusterfuck we have now. Click on one of the windows or spaces or whatever to go to it. Does it work? Yes. Is it more confusing for consumers than Exposé or Spaces? Yes. It's more complicated because it tries to mix control of all these different entities in one single place. The mix doesn't work.
Allegedly, as all third-party apps include the full screen mode that Apple is advocating, a Desktop Space would become a home for small single-window apps like iChat or Twitter (or at that time, it may be better to move all of those to the Dashboard Space and get it over with). Advanced users would be able to run all their apps in the Desktop Spaces if they wanted so. Normal users would be able to run all their apps in full screen mode, simplifying their lives. Like with Launchpad, full screen apps should be the default mode of apps, unless specified in the System Preferences.
For consumers, that would result in a pure, gloriously simple modal environment like the iPad. The pros would still have their clusterfuck.
The inconsistency problem
This mix and match of concepts brings a lot more problems. Take this example: when you are in a full screen app, there's no easy way to open a new app. You either have to swipe your way back to a Desktop space and launch your app from the Dock or the Finder or Launchpad. Or you swipe your three fingers up to access Mission Control and launch your app from the Dock or click on Launchpad in the Dock and find your app there. Or you can access the Command + Tab menu and access Launchpad from there. Or you can find your app in the Spotlight widget on the top menu of the full screen app.
These multiple points of access would make the head of any consumer explode, while advanced users would probably go for a quick third-party launcher like Alfred, something that would allow them to quickly open any app or document from anywhere.
That's not the only headache that this mix of multiple concepts introduce. There's the issue of inconsistency in gestures. Never mind the introduction of Natural Scrolling, which basically reverses the way you have scrolled all your life to match the way the iPad does it (your brain will adapt to it in a few minutes—but you can always turn it off). The problem is that gestures are not consistent between applications.
You swipe left and right with three fingers to move through spaces, but when you are in Launchpad, you do a similar thing by using two fingers only. One doesn't work. That's because Launchpad is an application, so it uses the two-finger page-swapping gesture. But it feels wrong because your brain is wired to the way you swap spaces. In Safari, the two-finger swapping makes you travel in your history. In Preview, it makes you go through pages. Which kind of makes sense, but it doesn't.
There's a problem there, which is likely going to affect other apps. It feels like the gesture language is non-consistent and it's certainly not as intuitive as the iPhone or the iPad, perhaps because the touch element doesn't exist. One tip: If you are going to get Lion, get a Magic Trackpad.
The ugly failure of the physical metaphor
Another iOS aspect that has worked its way into Mac OS X Lion is the graphical emulation of physical surfaces. Now there's gross faux wood panelling in Photo Booth. The Address Book is a real world hardbound address book. iCal is a bloody pseudo-calendar made of paper and leather.
The question is: Why is Apple reproducing things that are obsolete already? Do people still use calendars made of leather and paper? Do people use agendas? Seriously, does anyone under 18 even know what these are?
I understand that the iOS guidelines call for physical surfaces to invite touch, but that's because there's a screen to touch. And, let's face it, we are not in 2008 anymore. Everyone knows how to touch a screen. And I can't touch my iMac screen and make it do anything, anyway.
It may be the subject for another article, but this emulation of old stuff feels like a juvenile gimmick, much like the old gummy-drop Aqua interface feels old and dated now. In this regard, perhaps Apple software people should have taken a page from Jon Ive and his cronies: Simplify the interface, get rid of the things that don't add any information to the user, all the useless adornments. I'd have loved to see a user interface that echoed Apple's own hardware and use of typography.
The right stuff
It's not all bad. They got rid of the Aqua jelly scrollbars and—when they are not doing gimmicky real-world object emulation—the graphical aspects of the user interface are simpler and unified. More sober than ever before.
The use of animation is also gorgeous, and full of meaning. The sharing interface of AirDrop works great. It's simple, it makes sense, it works. There's nothing superflous there. In Mail, the animation used to show threads works well. It helps the user to understand what's going on ("oh, it's expanding!"). I would love to see more simplification of the graphics and more use of animation to convey information.
There are lots of other little things, like iChat and its unified contact list, a much needed fix that third party chats apps already had. The accounts and contact information is also unified in a iOS-like kind of way. Those things feel good. As do things like saving the status of application and the automatic versioning of documents, which saves your data automatically and allows you to go back in time to reverse edits on a document-per-document basis. These little things will be reason enough for many to upgrade to Lion.
I don't need Lion, and you probably don't need it either
But overall, it doesn't feel like a must-have upgrade to me.
I love Mac OS X. I've used it since the very first and painful developer preview, back in September 2000. I love iOS too, because its modal nature simplifies powerful computing, and, at the same time, empowers normal people. I hoped Mac OS X Lion was going to merge both perfectly. Sadly, from a user interface point of view, it has failed to achieve that. And by failing at this task, it has made a mess of what was previously totally acceptable.
Mac OS X Lion still works. It's fast. It's solid. Its shortcomings could be partially fixed. And I'm sure that many will learn these new user interfaces patches and live with them. Me? I'd rather wait for a more coherent operating system. Perhaps Mac OS 11. Or iOS 6.