Why OS X Lion roars

The arrival of OS X 10.7 “Lion” is a significant step forward for many reasons. For some, it will be the point at which Apple starts to integrate the desktop/laptop experience with the tablet/iPad one. For others, it might be their first experience of Apple’s platform – it’s clear that sales are being gained as customers who’ve bought iPads or iPhones start to examine their options to move on from older Windows machines (which puts OS X into the frame in a way that Linux isn’t).

For me, though, what’s significant is that Apple hasn’t given up and shut up shop on the OS X family.

Without a doubt the arrival of first the iPod, then the iPhone and lastly the iPad, have had a truly dramatic effect on the company’s fortunes, an effect that’s amplified by the explosion in the number and the success of its retail operation – at a time when everyone was predicting that e-sales were the only way to go. And of course this has been helped along by Microsoft’s inept dropping of the ball with Windows Vista, from which it has only partly recovered through Windows 7.

Lion is a significant release – it’s Apple’s Windows 8 moment, but a whole year earlier

I’m not denying for a moment that Windows 7 has been a success for Microsoft in terms of units sold, the rebuilding of corporate image and a refocusing of energies for the future, but we know today that the platform we’ve been waiting for – the true successor to the hearts-and-minds success of Windows XP – will be Windows 8, due out next year. At that point, many strands will come together: a revamped UI experience that finally acknowledges the existence of touch interfaces; a shift to supporting very low power consumption ARM CPUs; and an admission that much of the old legacy software is now beyond its sell-by date, locked in a time warp and not really fit for the forthcoming decade.

That the company could keep getting it so wrong for most of a decade and still be in business is a testament to its colossal market share and importance. I cruelly joke to friends inside Microsoft that this is all the ill-gotten rewards of a convicted monopolist, which has managed to cling onto the market share it obtained through means both fair and foul. Their reaction – namely, to choke into their pint-sized paper mugs of milky coffee – suggests that my view isn’t the one currently prevailing in Redmond, even though there’s a sniff of truth hidden away in the acidity of the comment.

Nevertheless, Apple has made steady progress with OS X, with a new release every year or two, each of which tends to bring better features without breaking the recent past. We must try to remember that the 2000s were the decade when Apple managed the near impossible: killing off its old OS line, which culminated with OS 9, and replacing it with something far more solid and with an equally long history.

Never forget that the underpinnings of OS X came straight from NeXTStep, the OS developed for the company Steve Jobs set up during his time away from Apple. Comparisons with the early days of Windows NT are entirely valid, and some people will argue quite cogently that NeXTStep both came before, and was superior to NT. But that’s a topic more suitable for one of our regular ITTU (IT Tweet Up) meetings, which we hold either in a London pub or the pub next door to my house, near Huntingdon.

So Lion is a significant release. It’s Apple’s Windows 8 moment, but a whole year earlier. It isn’t only a pretty face, although the cosmetic improvements it brings are welcome. For example, finally we can resize a window by dragging on any side or corner. Yes, I know that Windows 2.x did this back in the 1980s. As any long-term reader will understand, there are few truly new ideas in the world, only different, and better or worse implementations of common sense.

What else makes Lion worthy of attention? Well, this is the OS release where the kernel goes 64-bit across the board. Apple has managed to create an OS architecture that could have a 32-bit kernel running both 32-bit and 64-bit apps. Nothing new there, you might think – Windows has done this for ages. Indeed, it did, but OS X allowed 32-bit and 64-bit drivers to be intermixed on the same kernel, whether that be 32-bit or 64-bit. That’s why OS X hasn’t suffered from Windows’ 32-bit vs 64-bit differentiation, which has inevitably led to slower uptake of 64-bit driver writing than might have been ideal. With Lion it’s a 64-bit kernel push, and a corresponding push for 64-bit drivers and apps.

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