Now that phones have adopted some of the tasks of our computers, should our computers learn a few tricks from our mobile devices? Apple thinks so, to judge from its new Mac OS X Lion operating system.
Lion — you can also refer to it as OS X 10.7 — is the first update to the Mac's core software developed by Apple since the iPhone and the iPad upended the mobile-gadget market. (The Snow Leopard release shipped in 2009 was a comparatively minor change from 2007's Leopard.)
Lion's resemblances to Apple's iOS mobile operating system start with how you install it: Instead of popping in a DVD, you load it from Apple's Mac App Store. At 3.9 gigabytes, this $29.99 release will probably be a slow download; you can take your Mac to one of Apple's stores to get Lion over in-store Wi-Fi, or you can buy it on a USB flash drive for $69 starting in August.
After that lengthy download, my 2009-vintage iMac needed an hour to install Lion. (By the way, it requires that you already have Snow Leopard.)
The iPhone and iPad influence starts when you first try to scroll down a web page. As in Apple's mobile devices, Lion normally hides scroll bars in windows — and to scroll down, you have to flick your fingers away from you on a Mac's mouse or touchpad, not towards you as you did in earlier OS X versions. It's as if the iPad has become a gateway drug to the Mac.
(You can undo this "reverse scroll" behavior in OS X's System Preferences application.)
Other iPad-style gestures take you forward or back and zoom into pages in Safari and shift from your desktop to Lion's Dashboard widgets — which may lead to confusing moments at first. To get to your own programs, Lion provides LaunchPad, a grid of shortcuts to your apps that could have been copied and pasted from the iPad's home screen.
With LaunchPad and the "All My Files" view greeting you in new Finder windows, Apple is trying to escape from the traditional files-and-folders hierarchy that's dominated computing since the first Mac popularized it in 1984.
Lion's most helpful borrowing from iOS frees you from having to save your work all the time — but only in programs that have been revised for this feature, such as the TextEdit app. Auto Save constantly stores your work in the background, while the related Versions option lets you jump back to an older take of a document.
Underneath these interface changes, Lion brings needed improvements to OS X's security. (The Mac has been relatively free of viruses and other pests, but you'd be foolish to expect malware authors to ignore it indefinitely.)
Simple Mac-to-Mac AirDrop file sharing, a Windows-to-Mac migration assistant, a revised Mail program that adopts Gmail's conversation view, an iPad look to iCal and Address Book and other little tweaks round out Lion. At $30, it's a fine deal overall.
But if you have vintage Mac programs, Lion may cost much more. Some six years after Apple announced it would switch to Intel processors, Apple has formally disowned its older PowerPC chips: Lion won't run programs written for them. Users who have beem coasting along with Intuit's Quicken 2007, Microsoft's Office 2004 or other "PPC" apps will have to upgrade to newer releases after installing Lion.
That and other strange limits in Lion (for example, its hiding the Library folder in which programs store their settings and supporting files) suggest another, less-welcome borrowing from iOS: the we-know-what's-good-for-you arrogance exhibited in Apple's strict regulation of the iPhone's App Store.