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What Mac owners need to know after today's WWDC announcements

With Mac OS X Lion coming in July and the free iCloud service coming in the fall, owning a Mac is about to get a whole lot more exciting. Today's WWDC keynote was full of announcements about the new services Lion and iCloud will offer, and whether you're a Mac newbie or an old hand, it's worth looking at a condensed list of what this means for the future of the Mac.

Mac OS X Lion

1. Lion will be available in July, and it only costs US$29.99 for all your devices. Quite a few people expected the next version of Mac OS X to be cheaper than the $129 Apple charged for the first five versions, but we were pleasantly shocked to see it being offered for the same price as the current version, Mac OS X Snow Leopard. Not only that, but your OS X Lion install is valid for any Mac you own, meaning "family versions," the more expensive multi-user OS X versions Apple used to offer, are now a thing of the past. That's largely because...

2. Lion will only be available through the Mac App Store. Apple has made it so you no longer need to buy a retail box with a disc containing the Mac OS X installer. This makes it so you can install Lion on any Mac associated with your iTunes account. There are some unaddressed questions about this process (more on that later), but one thing is certain: if Lion is only available via the Mac App Store, that means it's only available to Snow Leopard users. The Mac App Store isn't available on Mac OS X Leopard or earlier versions, so if you haven't updated to Snow Leopard yet, it looks like a Leopard-to-Lion upgrade will actually cost you about $60.

3. If you have a desktop Mac, now's a good time to go get a Magic Trackpad. Apple has gone full-tilt on integrating Multi-Touch gestures into Mac OS X. The company started integrating such gestures in early 2008, but Mac OS X Lion is making them an integral part of the OS. If you want to get the most out of Lion, and you have a Mac mini, iMac or a Mac Pro, you'll need a Magic Trackpad to take full advantage of features such as Mission Control. Meanwhile, almost all Mac notebooks manufactured after early 2008 should be able to use the new gestures.

4. Mac OS X is taking some design cues from iOS. Launchpad, a simplified-app launcher, should be familiar to anyone who's used an iPhone or iPad. Apps can run in full screen if you choose, emulating the "one thing at a time" nature of working on the iPad. Mail is getting a new dual-column layout, with conversation views identical to what we've had in iOS for some time now. Also similar to the way things work in iOS, apps will resume right where you left them when you reopen them. Speaking of which...

5. Saving and backing up files will be easier than ever. The way Apple's described it, you might never need to worry about losing an in-progess file again -- or manually saving it, for that matter. Taking another cue from the way things have worked on iOS, applications will now automatically save your work as you go. The new Versions feature will also keep track of different saved versions of your work, similar to the way Time Machine's worked for file backups since Mac OS X Leopard. With this feature, one of the decades-long bugbears of the computing world has been addressed at last; now, if an app or your computer crashes out, your work will always be safe.

iCloud

1. iCloud replaces MobileMe -- for free. If you were always eyeing up MobileMe's services but didn't want to shell out the $99/year Apple was asking for, worry no longer. Everything MobileMe used to do, iCloud will do for free, starting this fall.

2. iCloud wirelessly syncs data across all your devices. If you've got iOS devices or are a multi-Mac household, you'll find iCloud makes it easy to keep data synced from one device to another. This means you can keep your mail, calendar entries, and contacts synced across multiple devices, automatically and wirelessly. MobileMe has done this for years (and .Mac before it), but iCloud will do it free of charge, so there's no reason not to use it.

3. Photo Stream makes syncing recent photos manually a thing of the past. A thousand of your latest photos can be synced between devices immediately over iCloud. So if you take a photo on your iPhone or iPad 2, it'll show up on your Mac right away, without having to hook your devices together first. The latest 1,000 photos on your Mac can also be streamed to an iOS device over iCloud.

4. iTunes Music purchases now appear everywhere. Buy a song in the iTunes Store on your iPhone, and it shows up automatically on your Mac. Buy a song in iTunes on your Mac, and it shows up automatically on your iPhone. This is a feature people have been wanting for years now, and it's finally available.

Unanswered questions

1. How can you install Mac OS X Lion on a new, empty hard drive? If the only way to install Mac OS X Lion is by downloading it via the Mac App Store, it's going to be very difficult to put it on a brand-new hard drive unless Apple provides us with workarounds. Maybe you'll be able to burn your copy of Lion to disc after downloading it or install it on a USB drive. At any rate, I hope Apple gives us an answer to this besides "keep your Snow Leopard disc handy" or "use Target Disk Mode with another Mac," because both of those solutions are suboptimal, to put it lightly.

2. Will Lion be available on disk for institutional use (schools, corporations) or for users with poor internet access? Some of us at TUAW think Apple might still offer Lion on disc for institutional use at schools or businesses, but it's too early to tell if that's the case. As for individuals with poor internet access, you're probably out of luck; the writing has been on the wall for those users ever since Apple stopped bundling iTunes installation discs with iPods.

Mac OS X Lion will be available for download next month, and iCloud will debut in the fall. Put the two together, and the Mac becomes more powerful than ever before.

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