I’ve been using OS X Lion for a while now, and over half a year after its initial release, I continue to have a niggly feeling that it is a bit poor overall. Now, before I go any further I feel I have to preface this post with some clear points. Firstly, I think OS X is currently the best operating system on the market, and I personally love it. Secondly, whilst I appreciate that Windows 7 is a good OS, and that Linux is superb on servers, I believe OS X is far better than either of these when it comes to consumer OSs. Finally, whilst I have issues with OS X that I’m going to describe here, overall I think it is great and I’m not going to stop using it anytime soon. So, hopefully you know that I am writing this article as someone who does indeed love OS X.
So why do I have a bad feeling about Lion? There are several specific issues I have, and also some much larger overall points. Let’s start with some of the specifics, as they are easier to describe. I hope you don’t feel I am being overly picky as I list these issues. I believe they are symptomatic of the larger issues, and so they are useful illustrations.
Exposé is undoubtedly one of the best features of any OS. When it was introduced I was blown away by how easily it made viewing and navigating all the open application windows at once. When Spaces (the ability to have multiple desktops) was introduced later in 10.5 (Leopard) Apple made sure that you could still view and navigate all application windows at once even if you had many spaces. You just activated Spaces, and then hit the Exposé key, and you could see all windows on all Spaces splay out. There were no overlapping windows so you could see the entirety of every single window. You could also navigate to any window you wanted using either the mouse or keys. Both in usability design and aesthetic appeal it was bliss; regardless if you were using one desktop or many. For me, Lion destroys the usability of Exposé. Firstly, if you have multiple Spaces there is now no way whatsoever to see all your open application windows. If you activate Exposé it only applies to the current Space/desktop, and although you can see the other Spaces the windows on them have not moved into the Exposé mode.
Windows are now also grouped by application, and each application’s windows are overlapped. For example, if you have five Safari windows open they will be grouped into one element in Exposé and overlap. In the first screenshot above I have five Safari sites with Wikipedia, Ars Technica, Engadget, Mac Rumors, and AppleInsider. However, in Exposé it is almost impossible to tell how many Safari windows there are nevermind the content of each. In the second screenshot, when activating Exposé from my second Space (Desktop 2), you can barely even tell that there are any Safari windows open at all.
Indeed, this grouping problem applies even if you only have one Space/desktop. The windows of each application group together and overlap, and often you can only see the content of the top window. Selecting a particular window in such a group using the mouse is challenging. Another big problem is that selecting using the keys doesn’t work at all. I believe since Exposé was first available right up until Lion you could always use the cursor keys to navigate the windows and then press space to pick one. In Lion you can’t use keys to navigate through Exposé at all. I actually filed this as a bug report with Apple some time ago, but they haven’t responded to it yet. I find the lack of keyboard navigation extremely vexing. I imagine that this could be a much more severe issue for disabled users.
With Spaces itself there has also been some loss of functionality in Lion. Previously, Spaces allowed you to set up multiple desktops both horizontally or vertically. So you could, for example, have a 2×2 grid, or a single vertical row, or a single horizontal row. I preferred a grid (I used a 2×2 grid), and I found this very useful as every desktop was one switch away (you could move diagonally so you could quickly jump the diagonal on the grid). With Lion Spaces only supports a single horizontal row. By default it also changes the order of desktops based on when they were last used, which I find infuriating as I assign specific tasks to each desktop number (e.g., desktop 1 = web browsing, desktop 2 = mail, desktop 3 = music, etc). Since Lion moves these around by default it completely breaks this mental model. Luckily, you can disable that (it’s the ‘Automatically rearrange spaces…’ checkbox in the Mission Control Preferences).
Launchpad seems to be an attempt to use the iOS app layout for desktop applications. I honestly wonder if anyone uses this. I certainly don’t, and the many non-expert users I know don’t use it either. If anyone is actually using it I would love to hear about it. Interestingly, at some point during development Apple must have realised that nobody uses this feature either as in the early Lion betas its dock icon was locked in place and couldn’t be deleted but this was changed so that in the release version you can just drag it off your dock so that you never have to look at it again.
I don’t know why others don’t use Launchpad, but I certainly have a few reasons why I don’t. Firstly, there are much quicker ways to launch apps. If I use an app frequently then I put it in the dock so it is always on screen and I can quickly launch it from there. If it’s something I use intermittently then I find Spotlight is a far faster and more reliable way to find and launch apps. Spotlight will find the app no matter where it is… typing into and using Spotlight is much quicker for finding a rarely used app than Launchpad because with Launchpad you have to search through many app icons and often have to swipe between Launchpad screens to find the icon you are looking for.
I really do wonder who is using Launchpad… is it just people who haven’t figured out how to use the dock, Spotlight, or any of the many great 3rd-party app launchers (e.g. Quicksilver, Launchbar).
iCal and Address Book
Thanks to the way Lion has given both the iCal and Address Book apps a makeover, I’ve learned a new word… skeumorphic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skeumorph). The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as ‘a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original’. For example, a physical calendar may have a page for each month and as the month passes you tear off the last month’s page. A computer calendar does not use pages, so if it gives the appearance of having pages when there is no longer a reason to then it can be said to be skeumorphic.
This may be a personal preference thing, but I detest how this has been applied to both iCal and Address Book to an insane degree. iCal has a horrendous fake leather effect, fake stitching and fake bits of torn pages that add absolutely nothing for me and take up space that could be better used for displaying actual content.
I especially dislike how iCal appears when it combines many elements at once. To me, it is a mishmash of modern digital elements and extremely dated physical ones.
Another awful point with all this skeumorphic stuff that Apple is doing is that because it doesn’t actually update its appearance with the activity in the app it actually gives me an uncomfortable, creepy feeling. For example, when you open Address Book it looks like an open book, with 5 pages on the left and 5 pages on the right. If you then scroll through your addresses from A to Z the book doesn’t move or change at all. When viewing the As it looks like you are bang in the middle of a 10 page book, then when viewing the Zs it still looks like you are in the middle of a 10 page book. Since the book never moves, this makes it feel like everything you are doing is sitting on a picture of a book… a static, dead book. It is creepy. If Apple are going to do this skeumorphic insanity then they should at least do it right and make the underlying book metaphor actually behave correctly. By the way, iBooks in iOS suffers this same problem, where it always seems like you are in the middle of the book, even when you are on the last page. Recently, Apple introduced an alternative mode in iBooks where you can now get rid of the underlying book aesthetic. I really hope this is the first signs of a rethink of their approach to skeumorphic stuff in general.
So, I feel the previous examples can be boiled down to one overall point… in Lion Apple seems to have missed expectations on usability. Apple is renowned for making software (and hardware) products that look and feel great. This means focusing on maintaining extremely functional and usable systems; and not compromising on either. Exposé is a great example of this. When it was introduced it looked amazing, was easy to navigate, and provided a lot of functionality. In Lion it is now much harder to navigate (smaller targets for mouse due to overlapping, no keyboard navigation at all), less functional (can’t view all windows at all if you have multiple spaces, and is much harder to view all even on a single space), and (perhaps arguably) less aesthetically appealing due to the grouping and overlapping of windows.
Launchpad is another good example where usability has, in my opinion, not been thought through. I feel this is particularly tragic. When Apple released the iPhone it was clear that they hadn’t simply taken OS X and ported it to a smaller screen. Indeed, in the keynotes they frequently boasted about how they had realised that it just wasn’t appropriate to do that, they said that what works on a large screen doesn’t work on a small screen, and they developed the user interface and all the widgets from the ground up, focusing on making a UI perfectly designed for finger-sized input. Now with Lion they seem to have literally taken the opposite approach. They have just taken the exact iOS homescreen and forced it into Lion as Launchpad, without making any changes whatsover for the larger screen and additional input hardware on laptops and desktops. Moreover, they don’t seem to have asked themselves if emulating the iOS homescreen on a desktop machine was actually a good idea in the first place.
There are many, many other instances of usability problems in Lion. For example, how whenever you open any new window in any app it zooms out from the centre of the screen, taking a short while but essentially wasting time. Previously, animations were only applied when they guided the user as to what was going. For example, when you minimise a window it slides into the dock, guiding the user to where they can later find; or when you double-click a folder in Finder the window zooms out from the folder’s icon, both quickly confirming the window is opening (useful for network folders) and showing where it came from. However, this animation does not contain any such information, it isn’t guiding the user in any way. Such truly superfluous UI niggles are numerous in Lion. However, my overall point is that it looks to me that with Lion Apple has somewhat dropped the ball with usability and functionality.
Lion also seems to be buggy, even after two updates (I’m on 10.7.2). Some of the things I have experienced include:
- The network failing to reconnect on wake if the machine went to sleep whilst a time-machine backup was in progress (this was fixed in 10.7.2)
- Wi-Fi spontaneously disconnecting (occurred frequently in 10.7.0, still happens but a lot less often in 10.7.2)
- Battery life on the same machine is an hour or two less on average when compared to Snow Leopard (I know this isn’t a bug per se, but it is a point I feel should be worked on and improved in future updates)
- Numerous Safari bugs, such as the Safari UI apparently locking up on a page, or the page randomly scrolling wildly
- Stock widget not updating
- Desktop icons overlapping when plugging/unplugging an external display
There are obviously many more. I know every OS has bugs, and every major update typically has a lot of bugs that get fixed over the course of the OS. However, I have used every version of OS X since 10.2 and it seems to me that Lion is suffering significantly more bugs than any release in a long time.
Why does Lion have these problems?
Assuming Lion does have some problems, can we determine why it does, at least at some high-level? I have no information at all to go on here, but I am going to make 3 guesses. Perhaps the answer is one of these, none of these, or a combination of these.
Steve Jobs wasn’t involved much or at all in developing Lion
Jobs was renowned for his laser-like focus on numerous aspects of OS X. I believe that over the years this greatly helped shape OS X into fantastic product. Perhaps Jobs was far less involved in Lion’s development than previous versions, and perhaps OS X suffered from a lack of his input. Although Lion was released whilst Jobs was still alive, he was effectively on medical leave for a year before Lion’s release, and perhaps longer. This may have meant that he just didn’t get the opportunity to contribute as much to the project as he normally would.
Focus on iOS
The iPhone and iPad have outperformed nearly all predictions and sales break expectations and records nearly every quarter. Apple’s iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad) products have been generating more revenue than their Mac products (MacBooks, Mac Minis, iMacs, etc) for years now. It may be that Apple have pulled a large amount of resources from OS X development and instead focused on iOS and the App Store. Perhaps it is simply that Lion has benefitted from less of Apple’s effort than any previous version of OS X.
Attempt to make OS X like iOS
Jobs himself stated that one of the goals for Lion was about bringing a lot of what they had learned and created for iOS back to the Mac. This is clearly evident in things like Launchpad, which is a direct port, and the skeumorphic iCal and Address Book, which clearly take their UIs from iOS’s Calendar and Address Book apps. Perhaps this was a misdirected goal and Apple would have been better on building the best experience for the laptop/desktop hardware of the Mac, rather than attempting to port elements from an OS designed for finger input.
Is Lion Bad?
So is Lion a bad OS? Personally, I still think OS X is the best OS available today. I’d rather use Lion than the latest versions of Windows or Linux. However, it clearly has some major issues that concern me. Indeed, whilst in every previous update to OS X I felt there was clear and valuable improvements, with Lion I find myself often wishing that I was back using Snow Leopard.
I am still thinking about Lion a lot. I know a lot of what I wrote may come down to personal preference. If you have any thoughts on whether you think Lion is good or bad, and why you think that is the case, I’d love to hear them in the comments.