The great thing about Apple's operating-system updates is that the company isn't content to plug in a few new features — it changes numerous features that sometimes take weeks to discover.
The less-than-great thing about Apple's updates is that you don't always enjoy that process of discovery. Take Mac OS X Lion, the release it shipped in July. Since I wrote my early, somewhat skeptical review of Lion, three things have started bothering me about this $29.99 update.
Multi-touch twitchiness. More so than earlier versions, Lion invites users to use the same gestures they'd employ on the touch screen of an iPhone or iPad. But this can make Lion irritatingly jumpy.
By default, swiping a finger sideways across a MacBook's touchpad or an iMac's Magic Mouse scrolls horizontally in a page — and then, if continued, takes you forward and back in Safari. If the browser decides you wanted to go to the previous page, you may get a dialog asking if you want to stay on the current page. Or you may get whisked away, erasing the clever status update you were writing.
Likewise, in the Finder a two-finger swipe now flicks you out of the Mac desktop to OS X's rarely used Dashboard, which I'm used to invoking only by tapping a clearly labeled function key.
Compulsive auto-reloading. Apple's browser has always slowed down or stalled after opening too many pages at once. But in prior versions, you could give it a few minutes to recover from the "Spinning Beachball of Death." In Lion, Safari often responds to overuse by forcibly reloading every open page, even if you'd been writing something in one of them.
Zapping your input without warning Should Not Happen. Just ask Apple, whose human interface guidelines state upfront that "People need to feel that they can try things without damaging the system or jeopardizing their data."
Errant auto-correction. Lion's mimicry of iOS extends to auto-correction of your spelling mistakes. But people pounding away on regulation-sized, physical keyboards may not need or expect such assistance. As a result, typing in Lion incurs enough "damn you, auto-correct!" moments that it may slow down some writers.
My favorite: turning the tech-journalist shorthand "eval unit" (as in, hardware loaned for an evaluation) into "veal unit."
Why didn't somebody at Apple think through these things? My theory: As other reports have noted, and as a former OS X developer confirmed to me, Apple often forgoes traditional "usability testing," in which designers observe users trying to use a new release; its OS X architects prefer to rely on their own sense of what works.
In the past, that artistic inclination has yielded such ingenious innovations as the Exposé thumbnail view of every open window. But in Lion, it's spawned features that look great in a demo but prove exasperating over time.
Sure, you can fix these issues (and others critiqued in third-party articles and in Apple's tech-support forum and Mac App Store) by changing Lion's defective default settings. Maybe an upcoming bug-fix release will improve things too. But that raises another issue: We already have an operating system that requires extensive tweaking and subsequent patching, and it comes from that other software company based in Redmond, Wash.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery