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Friday July 29, 2011 12:16 pm

Mac OS X Lion: Has the OS become just another app?

Posted by Andru Edwards Categories: Apple, Editorial, Features, Software

OS or App?

I upgraded my MacBook Pro to Apple OS X Lion in a lunch hour. Okay, it wasn't a lunch hour—I couldn't wait that long—but even more astonishing than the expediency (30 minutes to download and 35 to upgrade) was the effortlessness of the process.

At 9am yesterday morning, I opened the Mac App Store, clicked purchase, and let the installer work its magic. When I returned to my machine, it donned a fresh new log-in screen and a new OS. As tech journalist, this ought to have delighted me. Instead, I was left hungering for more.

It's not that Lion isn't a graceful creature; Apple's latest OS adds poise to an already agile predecessor. The 250 new features—Mission Control has already changed how I work—touch every corner of the OS and surpass the 150 additions of the refinement-focused Snow Leopard. Yet I can't help feel that something important is happening—has already happened—to very concept of the OS.

Rewind two years. It's August 28, 2009 and after feverish anticipation stoked by Apple's Web site, Snow Leopard arrives. I rush to my Apple Store, where I wait in line to exchange physical money for a physical box containing a physical disk with the latest Mac operating system. I return home, open the packaging, put the disk into my Mac's disk drive, and wait (and wait) as my laptop reboots from the disk, runs the installer, reboots again, and welcomes me to a new OS in a dizzying number of languages. Despite its intentional incrementalism, with Snow Leopard I know that I had installed a new operating system on my Mac because the experience is fundamentally different—and more demanding—than installing the latest version of Bejeweled.

I didn't have that experience with OS X Lion. Instead, when I returned to my Mac, I felt as thought a software update had completed. Much of this is contextual: Lion builds on existing technologies and doesn't require a steep learning curve. Yet the same can be said for Snow Leopard, which refined the existing Leopard. Lion is also priced like an app, rather than a traditional operating system; in fact, there are iPhone apps that cost more than $29. But this, too, shouldn't surprise: Snow Leopard carried the same price tag.

The most obvious shift is in consumption. Whereas Apple has physically curtailed the size of packaging since Leopard's launch in 2007, with Lion there is no packaging at all because it's downloaded directly from the Mac App Store. Allow that to marinate: Apple's Mac OS—the company's DNA—was distributed through an "app" store. When I open my "Purchased" tab in the Mac App Store, Lion occupies the same list as FaceTime and Twitter.

If we are now to conceive of the OS as analogous to Angry Birds, that's a tectonic shift in the industry that will challenge the implicit pact between software developer and consumer. If we're moving to an app model, consumers can expect less for less: less bother and lower cost balanced by less support and diminished expectations.

Thus far, Lion fits the model. On the one hand, it's app-priced and app-easy; by the same token, users seem willing to accept stricter requirements (if you don't have Snow Leopard—meaning you haven't bought a new Mac or upgraded your existing Mac in the past two years—you can't play) and fewer "revolutionary" features. I think that I, like most consumers, am okay with this trade, but I don't think we can pretend that this trade doesn't exist.

We also shouldn't pretend this isn't a landmark moment for the computer industry. While Microsoft continues to toil on its sweeping Windows 8, there's little reason to suspect that if and when Apple's coffers swell with the clicks of manic Mac users that Microsoft won't also emulate the model in the future. (If the software giant can be coaxed to put Office in the cloud, nothing's off the table).

To be fair, Linux has been download-only for ages and Google, with its Chrome OS and Market, has sought to monetize it. It was only a matter of time until Apple followed and gave the desktop OS the app treatment. The trend looks only to accelerate now that the electronics giant is ditching the rest of its boxed software. Yet, despite all of the benefits of this brave new developer world, I can't suppress my nostalgia for the weight—and wait—of the box.

This article, written by William Fenton, originally appeared on PCMag.com and is republished on Gear Live with the permission of Ziff Davis, Inc.

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