New, new, nothing but the new

Tech Life

Among the different kinds of discussions following the launch of Mac OS X Lion, one thing I’ve noticed is some people’s attitude towards those who, like me, have manifested perplexity and criticism regarding the latest feline. I have my reasons as to why I still haven’t upgraded to Lion, but being ‘scared’ by the new is not one of them. I actually look forward to installing it and take advantage of some of its most interesting features — Resume and Versions are on top of my list, considering how I work and how I use my main Mac.

I have to admit, however, that Mac OS X 10.7 feels like one of the most disruptive upgrades since Mac OS X 10.0, or at least since passing from Panther (10.3) to Tiger (10.4). Many applications may not work properly until their developers release updates fixing some Lion-specific issues. Other, older applications built on PowerPC code won’t work at all under Lion, since Rosetta (the piece of software that could make them run on Intel Macs) has been discontinued. Some new features tied with the user interface, like the rethinking of scrollbars and scrolling gestures, or the reorganisation of Spaces and Exposé into Mission Control, seem almost arbitrarily disruptive on Apple’s part.

When Apple introduces something new, or significantly alters old habits, it rarely does so on a whim, and I always try to stop and think about the big picture, about how a particular change may be a clue to a possible direction Apple is taking, and so on. Understanding a change doesn’t always mean agreeing with it unconditionally, or being fine with it just because it is (or feels like) something ‘new’. I do think that Apple is adding too many multi-touch gestures to the trackpad, and that Apple is asking users to learn some that look a bit too contrived (the gesture for launching Launchpad, for example) or confusing (e.g. “When do I swipe with 2, 3, or 4 fingers?” or “I can zoom either by pinching or double-tapping. Are the two gestures completely interchangeable system-wide?”). The Gestures video on Apple’s site illustrates these new gestures and despite the efforts to make things look natural, some of the interaction between what happens on the trackpad and what happens on screen still feels somewhat artificial, at least to me. The interface being mediated may have something to do with it.

I tried these gestures on a Lion-equipped MacBook Air in a store, but few of them came naturally to me, in stark contrast with what happened when I purchased my first iPhone: the direct contact between my ‘input device’ (the finger) and the content created an immediate intuition of how I could manipulate the interface. During my informal test in the store, I found more natural to invoke Mission Control or Launchpad by pressing a key. The corresponding gesture was always something I remembered later, like “Oh yes, I could also achieve this by doing this, etc.”, and always felt like a superfluous burden to learn, like “But why should I do that? I have to move my fingers away from the keyboard to make a gesture that’s longer to perform and just interrupts what I’m doing”.

Another thing I don’t particularly like about Mission Control is how disrupts previous workflows strongly based on the Exposé + Spaces combination. (Thankfully Matt Gemmell has written a post about how to restore some of Snow Leopard’s Spaces behaviour in Lion.) Or how it basically deprives Dashboard of any usefulness, confining it to its own space. One of Dashboard’s strongest points was the ability to appear over your current workspace, so that you could quickly take a look at some of its informative widgets (the weather, network and system stats, etc.) or briefly interact with them without moving away from the workspace. With Lion’s implementation, reaching the Calculator widget is possibly longer than just beginning to type Calc… in Spotlight and invoke the Calculator app itself.

Back to the main topic, sometimes what’s more alarming is not the new per se, but the fundamentalist mentality of some people, for whom new always means better. Since OS X Lion’s launch, I simply have wondered aloud whether certain changes are indeed for the better. Some people seem to think that just because Lion is the shiny new product, it has to be all good and of course it has to be better than previous Mac OS X versions and I’m just an old fart who doesn’t want to adapt to the new — only because I’ve voiced some doubts and because I’m renown by now for my passion for vintage Macs and obsolete(d) technologies. I generally don’t fear the new, and certainly not Lion, but often in the tech world I see lots of ‘redesigns’ and ‘improvements’ that appear to be nothing more than attempts at fixing what wasn’t broken in the first place.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!