Will iOSification kill Mac OS X?

With the recent release of Lion, it is clear that Apple is trending toward the “iOSification” of Mac OS X. And why shouldn’t they be? Sales of iPhones and iPads have made Apple a ton of money. iOS is obviously doing something right, so why shouldn’t Apple bring some iOS goodness to the Mac? Yet, after using Lion for a few weeks, I admit: I am not impressed.

Not only do Lion’s new iOSy features feel out of place, they make me worry about the future of Mac OS X. Is iOS going to overshadow Mac OS X so intensely that Apple is increasingly tempted to bring iOS “back to the Mac”? There is an old adage: “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” For Apple, iOS is one hell of a hammer and I am afraid that the Mac platform is starting to look a lot like a nail.

“Natural” scrolling is not so natural

Take “natural” scrolling for example. (And, yes, the word “natural” must be in quotes at least once because this is entirely subjective.) Even if Apple convinced Mac users to alter their behavior, do you honestly believe Microsoft or the Linux community would join Apple in setting things “right”? Mac users are fairly open-minded about changes like this: they tend to trust Apple’s judgment. But Microsoft has a huge stake in not pissing people off (who cares if they are happy, just don’t make them angry), and Linux users are notoriously conservative about interfaces (just look at the tempests in a teacup over changes to KDE4 and GNOME 3).

I don’t care how natural it is, if you think Apple can single-handedly convince the world to adopt natural scrolling, I’d like to introduce you to a man named Dr. August Dvorak. There are legions of keyboard junkies who swear by the Dvorak layout, but most of us just don’t give a damn. Why should we? We are doing just fine, thanks. Using a Dvorak keyboard layout, we might be able to squeeze out an extra few words per minute but it doesn’t justify relearning what we already know. Besides, unless everyone is going to switch, we would be forced to deal with QWERTY anyway. Natural scrolling faces the same hurdles.

With a touchscreen, natural scrolling makes sense. As Ellis Hamburger explains, that’s because we feel like we are physically moving the object with our finger. Yet, with a trackpad or a mouse (especially a wheeled mouse), there is a disconnect between the onscreen object and our finger.

Because your computer screen is on a completely different three-dimensional axis as the surface you’re touching, “natural scrolling” is jarring. I feel like I’m in the movie Inception and I’m trying to walk up a wall in front of me.

I did an experiment by tilting my laptop screen as far back as possible. Once I did that, “natural scrolling” felt more natural. Once your screen is on the same plane as the surface you’re sliding your two fingers across, it works.

But because your screen is oriented almost perpendicularly to the trackpad, it doesn’t work. It works when you’re touching the actual content (like on an iPhone or iPad), but not if your hands are manipulating a space that doesn’t mentally signify what’s happening on another plane.

So before you say that natural scrolling will eventually dominate, I ask you this: what benefit does it provide? In a world full of touch devices, it may offer more consistency but, much like Dvorak, there is nothing to be gained by switching. We are doing just fine, thanks.

Launchpad, meh

The only highly visible feature brought over from iOS is Launchpad. To be fair, I really did give it a try. I spent a good half hour organizing it like I would my iPhone, but it just didn’t feel right. Launchpad is rife with problems, one of the most obvious being that applications often have multiple components on the desktop. Just about every Adobe application will install a half dozen Adobe “applications” into your Applications directory, often including uninstallers. Until all apps are delivered via the App Store, Launchpad is just going to feel funky. And since not all apps are ever going to be delivered via the App Store, Launchpad is doomed to always feel funky.

Launchpad also suffers from serious interface incompatibility. Unlike on iOS, Launchpad functions a bit like a modal overlay: it only pops up when the user initiates it. On iOS, it is the primary interface through which the user interacts with the device. On Mac OS X however, Launchpad is more akin to Dashboard. Also, Launchpad’s folders are like iOS folders, not Mac OS X folders. The user can’t drop and drop folders into it, remove applications from it, or even organize it in any unambiguous way.

Besides, I have already have a hundred ways to launch my applications. The Dock is a pretty damn good one, and there is the Applications folder (also in the Dock). Spotlight also works great. Or any one of the half dozen application launchers like Alfred and Quicksilver. Frankly, Launchpad serves no practical purpose on the desktop. The only realistic use-case I can imagine is if a user decided to hide the dock and set up Launchpad to fire on a hot corner and I have little doubt that all four of those people are thrilled with Lion and Launchpad.

Full-screen… why?

Nitpicking aside about what exactly Apple’s full-screen implementation is intended to be, it is rather obvious that Apple is trying to imitate the interface of the iPhone and iPad: one application at a time. Yet, one of the cool things about having a 27 inch monitor is that I can easily do many things at once. Joshua Topolsky claims that multitasking is “not easy”, thus making Lion more attractive to users but, for all but mobile devices, this is just false. Multitasking on a desktop is fairly easy and even computer novices can listen to music, chat, and browse the web at the same time. It isn’t the technology that makes multitasking problematic, it’s our own innate inability to juggle multiple tasks at once. In this respect, the iPad and iPhone keep us focused on one thing at a time because we have no choice.

We need full-screen applications on small devices because there simply isn’t enough room to do more than one task effectively. This just isn’t the case on most computers. Going full-screen in Google Chrome on my 27 inch 16:9 monitor is a hilarious experiment in blinding whitespace. I am willing to bet most users with screen sizes above 13” would find the same to be true: full-screen doesn’t really work when most application can only conceivably use 50% of available screen real estate. Full-screen is great for keeping us focused on the task at hand, but it isn’t so great if it were to artificially limit our ability to multitask.

The good stuff

Lion isn’t all bad. Auto Save and Versions are good stuff. There are some use-cases in which autosaving wouldn’t be desired, but since this feature is implemented on application-by-application basis, I doubt those applications focused on these niches will either opt-out or offer the user the option to do so. Mission Control too is a clever way to integrate Expose and Spaces, which reduces conceptual complexity for a lot of people. While I made heavy use of Expose and Spaces in their former incarnation, I think more casual users will find Mission Control useful. And, of course, there are dozens of improvements under the hood that make Lion shine but since this falls outside the domain of this article (and also because I couldn’t possibly explain it better than him), I suggest you read John Siracusa’s excellent review of Lion.

I worry for the future of Mac OS X

While it may appear that the iOSification of Mac OS X is thus far limited to a few additional features in Lion, all of which are optional, I fear that it indicates a clear trend: Apple wants Macs to work more like iPads. There are a hundred little indicators that things are moving in this direction, including everything from the Mac App store, to Launchpad, to dropping Xserve, to quietly leaving the “Mac” out of “Mac OS X” on Apple’s Lion promotional page.

Granted, it is obvious that many computer users are trending toward smaller, more mobile devices. And it is also possible that, in the next decade, touch-based interfaces will become dominant. Apple is obviously banking on this by introducing more gesture support in Lion and devices to support gestures like the Magic Mouse and the Magic Trackpad. Much of Lion is obviously targeting MacBook users, while we desktop users — the “truck” people, as Jobs famously referred to us — are no longer being actively courted.

Yet there will always be a significant portion of the population who utilize a computer for more than simply browsing Facebook and watching movies. The iPad is great is because it directly caters to these people. For years, these users were forced to use large, complex machines that could do just about anything, from running an enterprise database and web server to reading e-mail. With such a wide variety of tasks available, the level of abstraction must obviously be reduced and, thus, casual users struggled with concepts in computing (such as the filesystem and networking) that they didn’t want to be exposed to. Developers, software companies, and hardware manufacturers were simply not satisfying these users’ needs.

For these people, iOS is a miracle. They can do everything they want to do without all of the fuss involved with a big, confusing computer. I already know a few people who, after buying an iPad, no longer use their home computers. That is awesome… for them. But now I see that their world is encroaching upon mine and I don’t like it. I don’t want my desktop computer being treated like a big iPad. As a developer, I need my computer to do work. I need to be able to run a web server. I need the complexity. With Mac OS X, I get the best of both worlds: I am able to do everything I used to do in Linux but I can also reliably hook up to peripherals like projectors and watch Netflix movies and have a quiet machine that instantly sleeps and resumes without blowing up. And even I, a confessed geek, hate fixing things that should just work, like the hours I wasted trying to get my damn mouse buttons to work properly on Linux.

As a professional geek, I know I am a niche user. But, like John Martellaro points out, “If Apple ever got to the point where UNIX professionals, serious influencers, were to publicly give up on OS X, then all of Apple’s prior work to establish the prestige of OS X would go down the drain. In an era of social networking, that influence can snowball out of control.”

I am just praying it doesn’t come to that.

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