The iOS-ification of the Mac

Dan Frakes
24 August, 2011
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In the commentary that greeted the arrival of Lion (Mac OS X 10.7), one theme kept popping up: The latest Mac operating system has adopted a lot of interface elements from iOS, the software that runs the iPhone and iPad.

To some people, this is great. After all, iOS is familiar to more than 200 million iPhone and iPad users, many of whom are either recent Mac converts or considering The Switch.

o anything that makes the transition easier should be welcome. But to longtime Mac users, some of these changes are frustrating –  even offensive. As someone who’s spent an inordinate amount of time on both platforms, I can sympathise with people on both sides of the argument.

What Works

Clearly, much of the good stuff that’s new in Lion has been inspired by iOS. Trackpad gestures, for example, give you an entirely new way of interacting with software – once you’ve used pinches to zoom in and out, or swipes to reveal your desktop, using menu or keyboard commands to do the same things feels archaic. (If you haven’t tried Lion with a trackpad, get one posthaste. It’s an entirely different experience.)

But iOS’s influence is everywhere: Auto Save means never having to save the latest changes to your files. Even after you’ve quit applications, logged out, or restarted, Resume lets you pick up right where you left off. Once applications work with Apple’s iCloud, your documents will be available on all your devices without your having to worry where files are located. And the Mac App Store (inspired by the iOS App Store) makes buying, installing, and updating software easier than ever.

These and other features bring the best of iOS – and a little bit of the future – to the Mac. You might say that to prevent ossification, the Mac OS has embraced iOS-ification.

What Doesn’t Work

On the other hand, some features that work well on iOS feel wrong on the Mac.

Take LaunchPad, for example. While iOS’s home-screen paradigm isn’t perfect, it lets you quickly swipe through screens of icons to find a particular app on your iPhone. But on your Mac, if you have more than a few applications installed, LaunchPad is an overwhelm-ing, unorganised mess. And given that LaunchPad is just one way to access apps, it doesn’t make sense that deleting an app from LaunchPad summarily deletes it from your Mac.

Another instance of Mac OS taking a step backward is that scrollbars aren’t visible if you aren’t actively scrolling in a window, so you can’t see where you are in a window or get a rough idea of the size of the window’s contents. You may not even realise you can scroll. We’re willing to forgo permanent scrollbars to conserve precious space on an iPhone’s tiny screen, but there’s no such limita-tion on a Mac.

Trying Too Hard

Other iOS-inspired changes just don’t feel right (yet).

For example, by default, scrolling up with your mouse, trackball, or trackpad used to move a window’s scrollbar upward; now it moves the content that direction. The new scrolling orientation is the way it is on iPhones and iPads, but it’s the opposite of the way it’s always been on the Mac. It isn’t hard to adapt to the new way, but it can be frustrating – especially if you still use other computers that do ‘traditional’ scrolling. (It makes sense to me when I’m using a trackpad, but feels wrong on a mouse’s scrollwheel.)

Similarly, few applications – including Apple’s own – really lend themselves to Lion’s new full-screen option. So far, most of them feel gimmicky. And Apple’s attempts to simplify the OS can feel like a bridge too far. (One of our most popular online articles explains how to reveal your personal Library folder, which Lion hides by default.)

The Future Is Developing

One reason people use full-featured computers for certain tasks is that they offer better performance, larger screens and more options for managing files and data. Macs and other computers can just do things that iPads and iPhones can’t.

But the differences aren’t as great as they used to be. As computers and mobile devices share more and more features and capabilities, they’re going to increasingly share interfaces, too. Sometimes this will lead to a better experience for users; in other cases, the computer side will suffer. Let’s hope that, as Apple continues to lead the way in both mobile and desktop systems, the company doesn’t forget that sometimes a phone is a phone, a tablet is a tablet, and a Mac is a Mac.

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