Apple Mac OS X Lion: what you need to know (so far)

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has unveiled the latest version of its desktop operating system, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. Here's what you need to know.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Apple CEO Steve Jobs on Wednesday unveiled the latest version of its desktop operating system, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. Here's what you need to know.

While the Cupertino, Calif.-based company gave only a preview of the operating system, the theme is that the desktop operating system found on MacBooks, iMacs and Mac Pro computers is taking steps toward its newer mobile operating system, iOS, found on iPhones, iPods and iPads.

That means Apple is even more apparent in its decision to play the platform and tighten the integration of its product portfolio, instead of supporting two distinct development paths. That also means Lion is in a way a transitional release for Apple -- in direct contrast to 10.5 Leopard, which set the modern standard, and 10.6 Snow Leopard, which refined it -- and has an odd marriage of desktop and mobile features.

The biggest indication of this shift is the inclusion of the company's wildly popular (and wildly lucrative) App Store on its Mac platform. Running as a separate application with a dock icon, the App Store is a window into a new category of apps: desktop apps. (Some of you tech-inclined folk would call this "software"; GDGT's Ryan Block was indeed correct in saying that this spells the end, finally, of boxed software.)

The App Store works the same way that it does on an iPhone, iPad or iPod: find what you want, download it and install it in one step. It's a lot like iTunes in this regard, but it's an important step in moving toward a single, curated, pay-to-play (unless it's free) portal for (approved) content.

Apple also introduced Launchpad, which it calls "a new home for all of your Mac apps." It displays them much like an iPad does: as spaced out applications in an invisible grid that opens on the screen, organized as pages to move (on an iPhone, iPad or iPod, swipe) through.

You can also create folders of apps, which are managed in a gray strip, just like the latest version of iOS.

That feature dovetails with another called Mission Control (paging NASA...), which combines the Exposé, Dashboard and Spaces applications of OS X with full screen apps. If that doesn't make sense, consider that when you trigger Exposé, you can see distinct selections for your open windows and your open apps in one place.

Apple also declared that Lion has full support, across the entire system and including gestures, for full screen apps.

Finally, Apple added Mac support for FaceTime, which you'll remember is the company's Wi-Fi-only videochat application.

That means Mac users can videochat with iPhone 4 and iPod touch users, as well as other Macs. The program automatically uses Address Book contacts, but oddly operates distinctly from the OS X's own iChat program.

The application is downloadable now for Snow Leopard users or higher.

The company didn't reveal much more about the operating system. Jobs pitched these features as "fresh" and "new," but they're really rather necessary to wed the two concepts of Mac OS X and iOS together. But it's clear that Apple has tried, to the best of its ability, to fuse two product lines together. It's the company's first foray into this, and it will no doubt be a rocky one as users get used to the idea of these distinct platforms operating as one. But, in a way, it portends the next phase of computing.

The App Store will be available for Snow Leopard within 90 days. It will be included in Lion when it ships in summer 2011.

Editorial standards