★ On Mixed Metaphors


This is not an iPad. Obviously. But don't you just want to reach out and *tap*?

This is Lion.

Apple released its first developer preview of Mac OS X Lion today. Not being a developer, I haven't used it, but I've been following the reaction closely. People seem impressed. But while Apple's told us its intentions - bring the advancements made with iPad "Back to the Mac" - I think it's worth considering what motivated Apple to make the design decisions it did.

Look at that screenshot again. In some ways, it almost looks clumsy, like a bad Photoshop. It doesn't make sense. What's the dock even doing there if your entire app library can be summoned with a simple multi-touch gesture? Why is there a folder in the dock when an entirely different folder metaphor is present in the overlay? What's going on here?

What you're seeing in Lion is the pivot point in the single biggest transition any computer company has attempted since Apple abandoned the command line-driven Apple II in favor of the MacIntosh.  It's not the transition between OS X and iOS, or between the mouse-based and multi-touch interaction. It's the transition between the Mac as a computer with roots in the PC past and the Mac as a tool and appliance, as simple to use your TV. Or your phone. It's a transition of perception as much as function, and this is the moment when it actually happens.

The familiar features of OS X are present in Lion. The dock is still there, as are the Finder, Spotlight, window structure, and file system. Sure, they've been given cosmetic overhauls, but there's every indication that if you wanted to, you could use a Lion-driven machine almost exactly as you use a Snow Leopard-driven one. None of the functionality seems to have been impaired or replaced.

But additional functionality has been overlaid on the traditional OS X interface. Pull with four fingers and you've got Launchpad. Swipe up with three and you're in Mission Control. A simple command and you're in full-screen mode, but you can swipe between apps and the desktop using a simple gesture. Editing a document? Same as always, only the system handles the saving for you. It goes on and on.

There doesn't seem to be much of an intersection between these new ideas and the old OS X system. For a company that's as feature-conscious as Apple, why add these at all? Of course the company wants to extend the metaphors that drive the popular iOS, thereby increasing the familiarity users have when switching between their mobile devices and their computer, but that's hardly justification enough. Why would Apple add this new layer?

Simple: so that when it takes away the old layer, no one panics.

I don't know how Apple decides what to call its OS releases. This will be the eight major release of OS X, and no one seems sure what will justify a leap to OS XI or OS 11 or whatever they call it. But functionally, if we perceive an OS as a metaphor that enables interaction between the end user and the underlying code (and really, to most people, that's probably the best definition), then this will probably be the final release of OS X.

Whatever comes after Lion probably won't have a dock. It probably won't have a Finder, at least not as we know it. Spotlight will probably go away, replaced by something a bit simpler (an Alfred-like system would be a good place to start). Full-screen apps will receive an even greater emphasis, with most smaller apps like any sensible (non-TweetDeck) Twitter clients functioning as overlays or pop-ups. Sure, there'll still be a desktop, and you're not going to see pure iOS-style uni-tasking, but the focus will be on... well, on focus, rather than on stacking as many apps as you can on top of one another. And when you need to transition between apps, a simple multi-touch gesture will be enough. In essence, the next version of Mac OS, whatever it's called, will be iOS-like in that it's primary focus will be on removing the familiar metaphors of the computer experience and leaving something behind that is simple, intuitive, and wildly functional.

And that is a terrifying thought. Stripping away the entire metaphor upon which modern computing was based? That's okay for handheld devices, but for THIS?! Of course there will be people who rebel when it happens; who think Apple's gone too far. The critics can stick with whatever version of Windows Microsoft will be throwing out by then, but somehow I think that a lot of people will embrace the idea of a simpler computing experience, in the same way that a lot of people who were content with their Razors are now passionate iPhone users (including yours truly).

Think about it: a computer that doesn't require you to root around in file systems or worry about saving, that doesn't make you worry about where or how your files are installed, that just... works. Really just works. That gets out of the way and lets you do what you need to do. That's the future. That's where Apple's going.

And Lion is the first step to that, the first real step into tomorrow's computer, but its a dangerous one. It's as radical a transition as we've seen in computing, because it doesn't just mean changing the way computers look or act - it means changing how we see at them and use them. It's a hard transition to make, and it'll take a few more years, but in the end the vast majority of normal people - not hackers, not tech-heads, but normal people that want to use computers to get things done without worrying about how the machine works - will welcome it.

For this release, I think Apple's comfortable mixing its metaphors, so that when it comes time to make the real leap, we'll all be ready to go with them. And when that happens, it'll look a little something like this.