Mac OS X Lion: This Is Not The Future We Were Hoping For

Mac OS X Lion: This Is Not The Future We Were Hoping For

It breaks my heart to say this, but Mac OS X Lion feels like a failure. Its stated mission was to simplify the operating system, to unify it with the clean experience of iOS. That didn’t happen.

If it weren’t for the fast, rock-solid Unix, graphics and networking cores, Lion would be Apple’s very own Vista.

The path to a simpler future

When Steve Jobs first introduced Lion, he set a bold goal: to take what has made the iPad and the iPhone so successful and bring it to the desktop. There’s nothing wrong with that. The simplification of the computer experience – which actually gives more power to the users by allowing them to focus on their work instead of screwing around with their machine to make it do what they want – has been the Holy Grail of computers since the ’80s.

It happened then, when we switched from the command line to the graphical desktop. (For the complete history of this evolution, read this). But in the last three decades computers have again become too complicated for a lot of people. The rest of us put up with it because we’ve gone through years of conditioning, but most people don’t know any conventions and shortcuts accumulated over two decades – the layers upon layers of user interface, patched one on top of another.

That’s why the iPad and the iPhone have been so amazing. They were clean slates that kicked all those conventions to the curb. The result is a simple, powerful environment. It’s awesome. It is the future.

The problem is that Lion is the wrong step into that future. By trying to please everyone, the OS X team has produced an incongruent user interface pastiche that won’t satisfy the consumers seeking simplicity nor the professional users in search of OCD control. Apple hasn’t really targeted a specific population. Or provided varying levels of user control – a super-simple modal interface for normal people and pro-level classic window interface for nerds. That’s what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8. Ironically, if Apple had taken a page out of Microsoft’s book in this case, it would have been a step in the right direction.

Lots of good intentions

The first time I started Lion I was expecting Launchpad to take over the screen, like the iPad. Apple touted it as the new way to launch your apps. The combined theory of Lion-iOS-iCloud is good, almost magic: Launchpad to access your apps, apps to access your documents which, eventually, would all be in the cloud and accessible from all your devices. Eliminating the physical desktop metaphor completely, the same way Gmail has eliminated the need to have mail folders. With current instant-search technology, there’s no need for anal folder organisation. Advanced users and other masochists would still have access to their Finders for the time being, of course, just like Microsoft is doing with Windows 8.

That could have made a lot of sense for everyone involved. But what Apple did doesn’t compute: Launchpad is supposedly the way to access all your apps, but who wants to click once on the dock’s Launchpad icon, launch that interface, and then select your app when you can just open the app from the Finder itself? It’s an extra click (or two or three). It’s added complexity; it’s superfluous.

Mission Chaos

That’s one part of Lion’s multiple personality problem. Mission Control along with Full Screen apps is another. Mission Control is touted by Apple as the perfect merger of Exposé and Spaces. Beloved by advanced users, Exposé and Spaces are great productivity tools in Leopard. The first allows you to quickly select apps and windows. Spaces helps pro users organize work environments, by grouping different app windows all floating on different desktops.

The way they mixed it (check the video for a better understanding) may work for advanced users, but it is way too complicated for consumers. It feels like a broken bridge between the modal world and the windowed world.


By default, there’s a Dashboard Space, where all widgets live, like in the current Mac OS X. Then there is a Desktop Space, where the windowed apps exist. Again, this is like in Leopard. In Lion there could be multiple desktops grouping different apps, all set by the user. And finally, there is Full Screen App Space, which results in multiple spaces too, one per app taking over the whole screen. iPhoto, Preview and many system apps can run full screen at this point.

This is not a bad idea per se. When you work only with Full Screen Apps it all makes perfect sense. It’s very easy and smooth to move from one app to the other swiping your three or four fingers left or right. Your mind switches tasks as you move from app to app. I mostly work with Photoshop, my tabbed browser, iMovie/FCP and Mail. Add iPhoto for my personal 70,000-photo album and iTunes for about 12,000 songs. It’d be very convenient for me to switch through full screen versions of these apps. I like the simplicity and the clarity it brings.

But when you add Desktop Spaces and the Dashboard Space, it all becomes a mêlée of windows, desktops, squares, Dashboard widgets and icons. When you get into Mission Control by swiping three fingers up, you get a new clusterfuck that is added to the traditional windowed clusterfuck we have now. Click on one of the windows or spaces or whatever to go to it. Does it work? Yes. Is it more confusing for consumers than Exposé or Spaces? Yes. It’s more complicated because it tries to mix control of all these different entities in one single place. The mix doesn’t work.

Allegedly, as all third-party apps include the full screen mode that Apple is advocating, a Desktop Space would become a home for small single-window apps like iChat or Twitter (or at that time, it may be better to move all of those to the Dashboard Space and get it over with). Advanced users would be able to run all their apps in the Desktop Spaces if they wanted so. Normal users would be able to run all their apps in full screen mode, simplifying their lives. Like with Launchpad, full screen apps should be the default mode of apps, unless specified in the System Preferences.

For consumers, that would result in a pure, gloriously simple modal environment like the iPad. The pros would still have their clusterfuck.


The inconsistency problem

This mix and match of concepts brings a lot more problems. Take this example: when you are in a full screen app, there’s no easy way to open a new app. You either have to swipe your way back to a Desktop space and launch your app from the Dock or the Finder or Launchpad. Or you swipe your three fingers up to access Mission Control and launch your app from the Dock or click on Launchpad in the Dock and find your app there. Or you can access the Command + Tab menu and access Launchpad from there. Or you can find your app in the Spotlight widget on the top menu of the full screen app.

These multiple points of access would make the head of any consumer explode, while advanced users would probably go for a quick third-party launcher like Alfred, something that would allow them to quickly open any app or document from anywhere.

That’s not the only headache that this mix of multiple concepts introduce. There’s the issue of inconsistency in gestures. Never mind the introduction of Natural Scrolling, which basically reverses the way you have scrolled all your life to match the way the iPad does it (your brain will adapt to it in a few minutes – but you can always turn it off). The problem is that gestures are not consistent between applications.


You swipe left and right with three fingers to move through spaces, but when you are in Launchpad, you do a similar thing by using two fingers only. One doesn’t work. That’s because Launchpad is an application, so it uses the two-finger page-swapping gesture. But it feels wrong because your brain is wired to the way you swap spaces. In Safari, the two-finger swapping makes you travel in your history. In Preview, it makes you go through pages. Which kind of makes sense, but it doesn’t.

There’s a problem there, which is likely going to affect other apps. It feels like the gesture language is non-consistent and it’s certainly not as intuitive as the iPhone or the iPad, perhaps because the touch element doesn’t exist. One tip: If you are going to get Lion, get a Magic Trackpad.

The ugly failure of the physical metaphor

Another iOS aspect that has worked its way into Mac OS X Lion is the graphical emulation of physical surfaces. Now there’s gross faux wood panelling in Photo Booth. The Address Book is a real world hardbound address book. iCal is a bloody pseudo-calendar made of paper and leather.


The question is: Why is Apple reproducing things that are obsolete already? Do people still use calendars made of leather and paper? Do people use agendas? Seriously, does anyone under 18 even know what these are?

I understand that the iOS guidelines call for physical surfaces to invite touch, but that’s because there’s a screen to touch. And, let’s face it, we are not in 2008 anymore. Everyone knows how to touch a screen. And I can’t touch my iMac screen and make it do anything, anyway.

It may be the subject for another article, but this emulation of old stuff feels like a juvenile gimmick, much like the old gummy-drop Aqua interface feels old and dated now. In this regard, perhaps Apple software people should have taken a page from Jon Ive and his cronies: Simplify the interface, get rid of the things that don’t add any information to the user, all the useless adornments. I’d have loved to see a user interface that echoed Apple’s own hardware and use of typography.

The right stuff

It’s not all bad. They got rid of the Aqua jelly scrollbars and – when they are not doing gimmicky real-world object emulation – the graphical aspects of the user interface are simpler and unified. More sober than ever before.

The use of animation is also gorgeous, and full of meaning. The sharing interface of AirDrop works great. It’s simple, it makes sense, it works. There’s nothing superflous there. In Mail, the animation used to show threads works well. It helps the user to understand what’s going on (“oh, it’s expanding!”). I would love to see more simplification of the graphics and more use of animation to convey information.

There are lots of other little things, like iChat and its unified contact list, a much needed fix that third party chats apps already had. The accounts and contact information is also unified in a iOS-like kind of way. Those things feel good. As do things like saving the status of application and the automatic versioning of documents, which saves your data automatically and allows you to go back in time to reverse edits on a document-per-document basis. These little things will be reason enough for many to upgrade to Lion.

I don’t need Lion, and you probably don’t need it either But overall, it doesn’t feel like a must-have upgrade to me.

I love Mac OS X. I’ve used it since the very first and painful developer preview, back in September 2000. I love iOS too, because its modal nature simplifies powerful computing, and, at the same time, empowers normal people. I hoped Mac OS X Lion was going to merge both perfectly. Sadly, from a user interface point of view, it has failed to achieve that. And by failing at this task, it has made a mess of what was previously totally acceptable.

Mac OS X Lion still works. It’s fast. It’s solid. Its shortcomings could be partially fixed. And I’m sure that many will learn these new user interfaces patches and live with them. Me? I’d rather wait for a more coherent operating system. Perhaps Mac OS 11. Or iOS 6.


Republished from Gizmodo


  • I think “screw up their desktop OS” is a ridiculous thing to say, BUT i do think that some of the new UI elements in OSX Lion are poorly done.

  • System level application resume, autosave and file versioning. As a programmer, I find it insane that most computer users don’t have a way to track revisions of their work.

    For people who use their computers to do actual WORK, this is a must get.

    Alternatively, everyone, programmer or not, should learn to use git or mercurial.

  • Your problem is that you want an iOS Mac. That’s not what Lion is. It’s an evolutionary upgrade to Mac OSX.. The next step.

    This article is a bit retarded.

  • Meh! So it’s got growing pains. It’s only $29, how much of Windows 8 can you buy with that?

    Maybe they’ll clean it up with the next $29 release. I agree it’s not perfect, but it’s not awful either.

    • The $29 price point is a bit of a con. By paying so much for the computer you’re really paying heaps for OSX in the first place. As well as this OSX only runs on computers made by Apple whereas Microsoft only makes money off the OS, not the computer itself so Apple makes all the money anyway.

  • Windows 7 has been MS best os yet but does NOT EVEN COME CLOSE to being as stable as Snow Leopard. MS may pull if off to please geeky and ungeeky types alike but haven’t shown us they are able to as yet, we’ll see with 8. 36-47% are still running XP.

    I do think Apple are pushing the envelope to convert our desktop OS to iOS. If I really wanted iOS i’d buy a Pad. I’m a geeky type and like control! I do think they are destroying a GREAT OPERATING SYSTEM by heading down this road. We’ll see if they can fix it.

  • Not a mention of the features of Lion that will really matter, things like Versions, Auto Save, Resume and of course the interface to iCloud. Yes, some of them require updates to 3rd party apps before they can really shine, but they’re clearly going to be what drives Lion (and iOS 5) adoption over time.

    Who gives a rat’s about Spaces and full screen apps when you can seamlessly save your documents both locally and in the cloud, instantly return to a previous version of any document and never have to remember to use cmd-s again? Automatically copy your music, books and IOS apps from one device to all your others. And allow remote access by Apple ID instead of setting up a special user or giving out your account’s credentials?

    The advantage to making Launcher an app in the Dock is that of you decide you like it and want it always run you can simply set it as a login item and it’ll come up automatically each time, if you don’t then you don’t have to use it. Thank God Apple aren’t forcing things like that on their users like they did with Stacks a few years back. Lesson learned it seems.

    The key to understanding Lion is to see that it’s not a stand-alone product, it’s designed to work closely with both iOS 5 and iCloud. If you look only at the bits of it that live in isolation you’re missing the forest, you’re worrying about the bark patterns on a few trees.

  • As a Mac noob and Windows converter, I really tried to read your article with an open mind. Unfortunately I felt your article was uneven as you failed to mention most of the key features of OS Lion.

    I understand Apple is appealing to the masses by giving us many options to access our Apps/desktops/etc., this by no means forces a person to use these upcoming features. With the iPhone and iPad, Apple has indeed simplified how people interact with their ‘computer’. By integrating these options into OS Lion, people who previously were intimidated by Macs are discovering they are more than capable of navigating the ecosystem.

    You’ve dumbed down your readers as well as your average computer user. Yes to some, having complete control over your computing environment is key while to your average user, an “idiot proof” option may be more desirable.

    Personally, I am looking forward to not having to save repeatedly and being able to pick up exactly where I left off. Gone are the days of, “did I remember to save…?”. Push Notifications will allow for apps to ‘growl’ in the background without using precious resources.

    I am do not identify myself as a rabid Apple Fanboy but such lopsided reviews deserve comment.

  • Fucked if I can work out why Apple is making such a big deal about full-screen. Full screen sucks. Period. Hell I love Cinch (replicates Window’s sticky windows feature) because it easily allows me to have 2 documents open, side by side (no full screen), say a Pages doc and a PDF/web browser for working on research articles or reports.

    Fullscreen sucks, unless you want to watch a movie.

    Ahaha! Apple has designed Lion to make my movie watching better!

    Now I understand! No wait VLC already does that. Hmmmmm.

  • I think Yaysus underestimates users. But, I don’t know if I’ll use Lion until I’m forced— hell I’ll get it just to see what all the fuss is all about. I don’t really like iOS or gestures. They don’t make sense to me. This is probably due to the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” phenomenon. I don’t like apps autosaving. I don’t like full screen apps. I don’t like the dock. I do like Dragthing to launch apps. The most compelling think about Lion for me is full disk encryption. I can do that other ways, but not for $29. And, I want Eudora which I’m willing to run in a VM under 10.6 (if allowed) or even Windows. I have a very workable workflow and have no desire to develop another one.

    I want control over the look and feel of my computer and desktop. I suspect I’ll be able to hack Lion so it works like I want as I have done, since OS 4.

  • I am a Pro OSX user, and I quite like the “real world” metaphors that the apps use (kinda like the desktop, folders and trash bin metaphors that have been around 20+ years)

    So basically these criticisms are completely irrelevant to a large sect of users.

    Good job, Lifehacker.

  • You obviously don’t have enough experience with the os to be writing about it… most of the “failures” you mention have very simple end user controls… for example, to open a new application from a full screen one you just pinch in with 4 fingers and voila! Launchpad… not the crazy convoluted way you described… learn lion before you trash it… this OS is ONCE AGAIN eons more advanced than anything else out there. Apple didn’t fail. you did.

  • How about an article on improving OS UI design? No need for an academic paper, something in which we can all as users get involved with.

    Take some of these perceived weaknesses of OSX, and why not windows while your at it. Load up your favorite graphics editor and actually have a crack at coming up with some design solutions?

    Constructive criticism can be a beautiful thing, and hey, maybe we can all actually help improve things.

    Lets not “hope” for a better future and instead help “create” that future…

  • I find it difficult to fathom that Apple, the experts in UI design, made so many basic mistakes with Lion. The Linen, and other cutesy entries into the uncanny valley of UI, they simply create inconsistencies and it’s poor design. It does not academic papers or samples of alternatives to show that – just look at the great work Apple has done in the past.

    I am all about learning new ways to do new things, as long as they are better or faster. Lion seems neither.

    I think this article was dead-on in pointing out some of the flaws in the UI/UX, and I also will not be upgrading to Lion until I am forced to. The poor UI I see is not worth it. I will not downgrade my user experience for some of the underlying tech improvements.

  • Personally, I hate the iPad but these changes make sense from a productivity stand point. I always went back to Windows or Linux in the past because OS X lacked this ease of use.

    To me, you are in the minority here and this will likely lead to more Mac users.

  • I am a new MAC user recently switching from Windows. I used SL for about 2 months before upgrading to LION. Frankly I don’t get this review at all. I think LION is one heck of an Opsys. How hard is it to swipe the trackpad and select an app? And Mission Control is hugely better than Expose’ – a flick on the trackpad and there’s what I was looking for. And if you don’t like full screen apps – well don’t use that feature. That complaint sort of reminds of someone that complains about too much product selection in a store. It’s nonsensical. Maybe the author doesn’t like gestures? Because the gestures are quite foundational in LION.

  • What was that Applemaniacs said about Vista? Well you just got Vista-ized morons! Say thanks to daddy Jobs for this hehehehe… I hope you get an Apple 7 that fixes all this…Oops no wait… Steve is gone…

  • I’m returning my new Macbook Air. I could live with the crap iCal and toy Address Book. But Auto-save is downright dangerous for work.

    Auto-save is a time bomb when combined with work PDFs on network drives. Apart from the time that it takes saving 80MB PDFs over VPN connections when I rotate a page in a manual to check a schematic, it touches the file and saves it.

  • I agree with the article.
    It is going th wrong way.
    Too childish, too much iPad like.
    Horrible design disasters like in iCal and Addressbook.
    I need a quiet and powerful interface.
    Now it seems it is done for little kids and very old people.

  • Lion’s failure for me was that it just did not work right. I am not the only one, as if you look up “OSX Lion Performance Issues” there were many who had fine computers that just did not run with decent performance using the Lion Apple Store upgrade. I got advice from some very smart people to repair the permissions, which worked for many. I just went back to Snow Leopard. After trying Lion, albeit under very reduced performance, it didn’t seem to offer much.
    I liked “find my mac”. The seemingly inconsistent behavior of swiping left and right was annoying. I did not like losing the ability to 4-finger right swipe to get the task list. The cluttered replacement of the 4-finger down swipe was not a good substitute for me. I was looking forward to hard-drive level AES encryption, but the non-encrypted performance dive kept me from trying the extra overhead options.
    It seemed a little inaccurate to blame the hardware for losing support for “PowerPC” games and programs, since they ran fine using the same Intel chips in Snow Leopard. The only thing that changed was the OS.
    All in all, it could have been done and handled better. Snow Leopard gives me more for day to day work, for now, although I may give it another chance some day. Some of the features are in the right direction.

  • lion changed the way core audio works, for no reason with no improvement, rendering expensive hardware incompatible. also it seems playing back audio in vlc and itunes sometimes stutters continually.

    my biggest problem with lion is that I CANNOT revert to snow leopard, as this machine(which is technically supposed to ship with SL) shipped with lion and now it seems after trying to revert to about 5 diff versions of snow leopard I am still stuck with lion

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!