Apple’s Lion: a step toward a unified operating system

26 Jul

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I stopped caring about computer operating systems, but it was definitely at some point over the past two and a half years. I bought my first Mac back in March 2009, which is when I started delving into the heavy-duty writing of Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and since then I honestly haven’t thought much about the software powering my computer because it simply just worked.

That’s opposed to my previous experiences with other operating systems, where I generally spent more time worrying about getting the computer to run properly than on what I was actually supposed to be doing with it.

So when Apple released the updated Snow Leopard OS later in 2009, I really didn’t care. I was quite pleased with what was already on my computer, its predecessor Leopard, so I didn’t even bother upgrading. Similarly, I wasn’t too excited about the newest Lion operating system, released last week. I did download Lion onto a Macbook Air laptop, however, just to check it out.

Thorough reviews are all over the web, so I won’t delve too deeply into what’s new. Essentially, there are a couple nifty improvements among the 250 new features touted by Apple, most of which are likely to be familiar to anyone using the iOS found on Apple’s iPads, iPhones and iPods.

Chief among the new features is gesture control, which is available on compatible computers with trackpads – either on laptops or as side accessories. Besides just controlling the cursor on screen with one finger as we’re used to doing, now swiping up or down with two fingers will scroll the screen correspondingly. Swiping up with three fingers, meanwhile, will bring up Mission Control, which we’ll get to in a second. The feature also brings the pinch-to-zoom capability, made famous by the iPhone, to computers. Pinching in and out on websites zooms in on them the same way as it does on an iOS device.

Although it’s a neat feature, I’m not too crazy about gesture control on computers. As other reviewers have noted, tablets and phones are mostly media consumption devices while computers are largely devoted to creation. While whooshing around with your fingers is great if you’re watching movies and reading websites, that sort of interface isn’t the best for when you’re editing videos or, ahem, writing blog posts. Whether or not this particular feature proves practical is up for debate.

Mission Control is a sort of home screen where you can look at everything you’ve got open, then switch to what you want quickly. It’s handy if you often have tons of stuff running at once. I’m not exactly a power user in that I only have a few things going at any given time, so I can’t see myself using this feature much, the same way I barely touched its predecessor, Exposé.

Lion’s other main feature is the Launchpad, which is instantly recognizable to anyone who has used an iOS device. Launchpad calls up essentially the same grid of applications found on an iPad or iPhone. And, just as on those devices, the app pages can be navigated by swiping sideways on the touchpad.

Lion also installs the Mac app store right on the computer’s dock. While the store was available to users of Snow Leopard after they downloaded it, with Lion it’s a little more front and centre. Launching it brings up the same sort of one-stop software house found on iOS devices – free apps such as Twitter are available, as are paid ones (the Lego Star Wars Saga video game is only $29.99!).

The app store is a nice-if-not-entirely-necessary concept in that it brings a lot of software together into one place. However, anyone who wants to buy an Adobe product probably already knows they can simply get it from the company’s own website.

When all of the above is put together, it’s very clear Apple is trying to nudge its computers closer to working like its mobile devices. Gesture control and a focus on apps are basically what made the iPhone such a phenomenon. It’s no surprise then, that the company wants all of its products to be more like the iPhone. The Lion operating system therefore seems to be the first real step in that direction.

The complete OS can be downloaded for $30, a measly price for anyone who wants to stay up to date on the latest features. But, like I said at the top of the post, there’s still no real urgent reason to upgrade. Mac users really can’t go wrong either way.

Lion’s biggest accomplishment, however, is in proving that the race for the unified operating system is most definitely on. Microsoft last month issued a video that gave a first glimpse at its upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which will evidently work on computers, tablets and phones. Google also has some work to do in unifying its computer-based Chrome operating system with the various flavours of Android that run on phones and tablets.

A unified operating system that works across all devices is something of a holy grail in that it can tie customers to one specific company. If you have an iPhone, for example, you’re likely to want your computer and tablet to work nice and smoothly with it, which might motivate you to also buy a Mac and an iPad.

A unified operating system is therefore not unlike the telecom service provider’s bundle, where getting multiple products from the same company provides a benefit to the customer. In the telecom world, that’s usually a discount on each service, whereas in the computing world it’s ease of interoperability.

Ironically though, the real success of these eventual unified operating systems may not lie in how well they succeed in tying their own devices together, but rather in how well they work with the other guys’ OSes. While there are benefits to using only one company’s products, nobody likes to be forced to do so. The smart ones will do well to remember that and not get too myopic.


Posted by on July 26, 2011 in apple, ipad, iphone


8 responses to “Apple’s Lion: a step toward a unified operating system

  1. Daniel Friesen

    July 26, 2011 at 12:48 am

    There is another notable thing or two to include.

    Apple introduced process sandboxing in Lion. Essentially making it so that processes coded to support sandboxing must declare all the permissions they need up front, and the kernel can reject calls they didn’t say they needed when they were installed. Most of the pre-installed stuff is coded this way and they are requiring things submitted to the app store to be coded this way. They also made it so that processes don’t need the ability to open arbitrary files on the filesystem just to open documents the user is trying to open.

    The idea behind all that is that by limiting what processes can do bugs in those applications can’t be used to escalate privileges. Things like video/image encoding/decoding have traditionally been prone to more exploits. So by sandboxing the say video decoding inside a separate process with virtually no privileges (as WebKit2 is doing) you make it so that even if someone finds a buffer overflow that allows them to take complete control over the process that the decoding is doing the attacker is left with a process that can do practically nothing and they can’t use it to get any foothold into the system.

    Might as well also point out that with the autosave and application management changes Apple is essentially trying out a model where it’ll automatically quit things you aren’t using and re-open things the way you had them when you need them again. ie: One where without you worrying about what’s running OS X will try to keep only what you need running so you can get the best response out of what CPU and RAM you have.

    *sigh* And to think I’m supposed to be a linux fanboy.

  2. Randy

    July 26, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Whats old is New Again!

    The industry was dominated by proprietary operating systems up to the late 80’s and early 90’s where the larger machines started moving toward open systems, (Various UNIX flavours) and desktops became more proprietary in the OS (MS and Apple, all the others died swift deaths (rip DR-DOS, CPM, BE/OS, OS/2, etc…) But the hardware eventually became a kind of open system. Standard BUS, and CPU instruction set, basic general architecture, and eventually it even spread to Apple!.

    There were some huge advantages to a proprietary OS. Each OS was designed for a specific task, environment, or user type. The OS owner generally wrote much of the ancillary software to go with it (Telecom, Drivers, General operations…) and the quality of the programs that were written by third parties was also generally very solid, as the vendor was writing for an environment that was generated specifically for the market they looked to build for, not to mention that the costs of a system to develop on was substantial enough to weed out the folks who thought they could write code, but were not all that good at reading and understanding an environments requirements.

    This is the big problem when thinking about unified OS. Requirements of an OS are radically different for a phone, a camera, a tablet, a laptop, a desktop, and lest you forget, departmental, or big iron machines (I currently work in an environment that includes 30+ large scale HP/UX machines, as many AIX machines, and countless linux boxes.)

    As well, the requirements are vastly different for environments on the same platforms
    Scientific – Heavy computational, massive parallelism, specialized input devices,
    Business – Huge storage bandwidth, multi user, RDBMS, anti thrashing memory mgmt
    Desktop – General business apps, general home apps, multi media, games, internet
    Web Servers
    Data Warehousing
    High end Video Editing

    Any OS that tries to be all things to all people will inevitably be nothing of value to anyone.

    Not to mention that it only takes a look back over the past 10 or 12 years to see what happens when someone creates AN os that develops sufficient inertia to cover the market…

    Remember Judge Ito, and the European anti-competitiveness trials.

    If anything will ever be permitted to gain sufficient traction to become a unified product, it will have to be something with a GNU or similar license. Short of that, software at that level is considered too important to have the industry dominated by a single player. That said, for it to succeed, it will require an OS with such granularity, or the ability to create versions with components that are optimized for the hardware and user environment, or all we will have is a bunch of mediocre devices.

    Personallhy, my bet is on Google…

  3. mnulens

    July 26, 2011 at 1:26 am

    “Personallhy, my bet is on Google…”

    You’ll end up on the wrong side of history.

  4. Randy

    July 26, 2011 at 1:51 am

    Maybe, maybe not… I know for certain that whomever is on the wrong side will be having lunch with the rest of the Apple fans.

    Lest face it, Apple without Jobs? More like Apple Employees without Jobs!!! The last time the company made him go away, their level of innovation etc was right up there with Novell and WordPerfect Corp.

    Google on the other hand has diversified not only its software, but it’s team bases. They are solid groups of analysts, developers, marketing people, and visionaries that operating under LEAN development methodologies.

    I think that the true solution is Linux, BUT, unless there is a vested interest in the development and support of the product, and teams to create install packages for various platforms because my father, wife, and sister could never create their own, I would have to say that the future rests with Google as one of the few companies that could take a flavor of Linux to those levels. (Note that Google is one of, if not the the largest contributors to Open Source development. Think what you will about them, but they are currently considered one of the top 10 most reputable companies in the US.)

  5. Alexander Trauzzi

    July 26, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Until Tegra3, the only Apple product I can reccomend is the iPad and not by it’s virtues.

    I wouldn’t give them too much credit otherwise.

    There are times where I think they share a bit of the same hubris that RIM has. I can name quite a few scenarios where my iPad is either sorely deficient compared to Android for functionality, is too restrictive, or flat out has the most poorly thought out and haphazard interface I’ve ever encountered.

    Most Apple programs and interfaces have usage scenarios that effectively make them broken. Example: Try uploading a video to youtube from your iPad. While it’s doing that, press your home button.


    This is just one example of many that I’ve bumped into over my lifetime’s worth of Apple experiences. It demonstrates the sort of usability issues Apple creates by not just their processes, but also slow moving software cycles and indifference.

    In every aspect from user interface, to performance and compatibility with other systems, the latest Ubuntu CD will give you more and better for a staggering fraction of the cost.

    Apple righteously claims to be “the most advanced” in many cases, although they’re really only coasting off a stroke of luck in fashion and marketing.

    Stick with the free and open platforms and services. They are the ones who always have and always will continue to survive because they’re the only ones not fettered by investor greed and the whimsy of marketers.

  6. Ben Myers

    July 26, 2011 at 10:56 am

    This blog overlooks cloud-based file-sharing – truly the ligaments that will hold the unified operating system together. (Probably saving this topic for another blog, eh?)

    This is why iOS is the next big thing from Apple. Work on a document on mobile, find it at home without any noticeable or chord-based syncing. This is where the unified OS experience will really become apparent – moreso than being able to make use of a common set of gestures.

    • Ben Myers

      July 26, 2011 at 10:57 am

      …and by iOS, I mean the cross-platform iCloud features.

  7. Marc Venot

    July 26, 2011 at 11:42 am

    “but rather in how well they work with the other guys’ OSes”, but you didn’t place a hyperlink there explaining how it should work since there use different file systems (the probable task for the next version of the Apple’s OS).

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