Lion's Hairpin Turn

I finished John Siracusa’s Lion review late last night, and as I’ve said before, it’s a tremendous achievement. The level of depth and insight is wonderfully impressive.

A few episodes ago on Hypercritical, Siracusa explained his desire to weave a narrative into his Mac OS X reviews, rather than provide a laundry list of technical changes from the previous version. The result is a better understanding of the big picture: Mac OS X’s history, its current state, and where it’s heading in the future.

In keeping with that mindset, the final paragraph of Siracusa’s review reads:

Over the past decade, better technology has simply reduced the number of things that we need to care about. Lion is better technology. It marks the point where Mac OS X releases stop being defined by what’s been added. From now on, Mac OS X should be judged by what’s been removed.

Apple has always had an affinity for simplicity and minimalist design, and Lion is the next evolution of those tenets. As Siracusa explains in his review, the emphasis of OS X has shifted from the addition of new features to the subtraction of those deemed obsolete in the computers of today and tomorrow. Tiger (10.4) introduced over 150 new features, and Leopard (10.5) boasted over 300. Then things changed: Snow Leopard (10.6) explicitly contained zero new features, instead offering many under-the-hood improvements. It’s as if the first six incarnations of OS X saw Apple speeding toward an optimal number of features, and, once reached, Snow Leopard finally saw it putting on the brakes.

With that deceleration comes the ability to change direction. Much has been said about how Lion challenges computing conventions that have existed for decades, and what we see with 10.7 is Apple moving its desktop OS even further into the realm of simplicity. The removal of scrollbars and introduction of Fullscreen apps both contribute to a decluttering of the interface. Features like Autosave, Resume, and Launchpad all seek to remove barriers from the average user’s experience.

For us nerds, however, these changes can be quite unnerving. Siracusa repeatedly mentions “geek panic!” in his review and on last week’s episode of Hypercritical, when he revealed many power users misinterpreted his review’s final paragraph as containing a negative tone. That is, “removal” is a bad thing, more akin to maliciously taking something away than simplifying or improving an experience.

I disagree with this reading, and I think Siracusa makes it very clear that these changes are, overall, for the better. As he explains, technology should eliminate, rather than create, things we need to worry about. Lion eliminates visual elements, like scrollbars, but it also eliminates the fear of not saving, the fear of not knowing where you installed something, and the fear of finding documents amidst what seems like hundreds of files. The realization of these fears can be catastrophic for a typical user. But in Lion, the features that made those users feel unconfident about their computing abilities are now gone, replaced by reassurances and safety nets.

So, as OS X turns a corner and heads off in a new direction, we have “lost” some features of old, but we have gained a simpler, more user-friendly experience. And while it may take time for us nerds to adjust, Lion also opens up a host of new possibilities, and for the majority of its users, a world with far less fear.