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The perils of bashing an OS you've never used

I've been running OS X Lion for about 24 hours now. I knew what to expect before installing it thanks to months of coverage, but that was no substitute for actually diving through Lion's features firsthand. After a day of getting used to new features like Mission Control, fullscreen apps, Resume, and various other tweaks to my Mac's OS, I've grown to enjoy Lion far more than any version of OS X before it.

That's not to say it's been 100 percent smooth sailing. I turned the iOS-inspired, systemwide autocorrect off immediately after the first boot up into Lion, because a feature that's a godsend on a touchscreen would drive me (and most competent typists) absolutely insane on a "real" keyboard.

I disabled the inversed, "natural" trackpad scrolling right away, too, but I've decided to give it one more chance to work its counterintuitive magic on my muscle memory. Some of the trackpad gestures don't work all that well on my pre-unibody MacBook Pro -- the gesture for showing the Desktop works maybe 25 percent of the time -- and some of the other gestures occasionally bug out in Safari and stop working. I'm also not a fan of the "dumbing down" the Finder's sidebar has received; in Snow Leopard I had several default saved searches in the sidebar that let me access files based on history, but those went away in Lion, I've had to rebuild them from scratch, and they still don't work quite as well as they did in 10.6.

The one common thread running through all these gripes? They're coming from someone who's actually used Lion. I can speak with some authority on what I like or dislike about Apple's newest OS, because I've spent most of my waking hours since the launch playing around with it (much to my wife's chagrin). Some people who've also used Lion have laundry lists of complaints that are even longer than mine, with a handful of reviewers from (ahem) bastions of impartial Apple-related journalism (/ahem) like Gizmodo panning it thoroughly.

All snark aside, even though I disagree with the bulk of their review, at least it's coming from the point of view of someone who's actually used Lion. It's far harder for me to wrap my head around screeds like this one from a TUAW reader:

Coming from a Windows PC I moved to the Mac about 2 years ago, and up to now I didn't regret it at all. But what I now read about Lion makes me think that Apple is no better than Microsoft in telling people how they should use a computer. I call that arrogance, and I hate arrogance. Apple should not tell their users how to work, they should assist them with their work.

I hope that Lion will be made more user friendly very soon, otherwise Snow Leopard may be the last Mac OS I will ever use.

Did you see the key text in that quote? If not, here it is: "What I now read about Lion." If you believe everything you read about Lion, then like everything else Apple does the OS is merely a conspiracy from Big Brother Steve Jobs to lock down your computers all 1984-style, but so subtly that the Kool-Aid-drinking masses won't even notice as they line up, iSheep all, to plunk down money for overpriced and over-hyped hardware that would cost half as much from any other company even though it's far less functional than a ThinkPad running the latest Linux distro. (Gasp, gasp... did I miss any clichés? Oh, wait, I forgot to call you all fanbois. There, done.)

Judging something as complex as a computer's operating system solely by what you read is a fool's errand (even if it's book-length). I'll happily talk smack about any version of Windows from XP on down to 3.1.1, because I've used (and despised) them all. But I don't go out of my way to bash Windows 7, because I haven't used it. Same story with Android; I may get my jollies smacking down the common memes associated with Android's supposed dominance over iOS, but my practical experience with actually using Android can be measured in minutes, so I'm far from qualified in saying, unequivocally, that Android sucks and no one should use it, ever.

That's why I find pieces like this one from Dan Gillmor particularly puzzling. He claims that his current Mac will almost certainly be his last one because buying a new MacBook Air would force him to run Lion, and 10.7 "is far too new for me to trust as my primary OS." That's half of a fair statement; if you've got mission-critical stuff running on your Macs, running a day-old operating system on it may be unwise. Maybe wait for the first couple bug-fix updates, then take the plunge.

He also mentions the lack of Rosetta, which we've acknowledged may block the big cat for some users. But why the big leap from "Lion is too new" to "Last. Mac. Ever?"

This wouldn't be a big issue if I liked Lion more. Some of the changes look terrific, based on reviews. Others are more questionable, even though they're designed to create a more modern structure -- in itself a worthy objective but not when forced on users who have become accustomed to perfectly workable earlier methods. (Emphasis mine)

Again, we have someone who's apparently decided Lion is the Devil in digital robes without actually using it. He doesn't elucidate any of the changes he finds so questionable, but if his biggest complaint against Lion is that the user interface has changed compared to Snow Leopard's, he's right that it's changed but (mostly) wrong that the changes are a bad thing.

Both Gillmor and our unnamed tipster are complaining about how apparently non-user-friendly Lion is (it must be emphasized again, based on reviews, not personal experience), but Lion is probably the most user-friendly desktop OS I've ever used.

If you want brain-dead simple, feature-deprived but so basic even my 91-year-old grandpa could understand it, Lion has Launchpad. If you want middle-of-the-road in terms of usability, features, and ease of use, you have full-screen apps. Semi-advanced usage, hey, the Finder is still there, still confusing as ever to novice users and still frustrating as ever to the mega-geeks who crave UI consistency. As someone who knows just enough about power user features to be a danger to myself and others, Mission Control rocks my face off with its features. And finally, for the über-nerds, Terminal is the same stolid UNIX-y text interface it's been since the 1970s.

Gillmor's core complaint against Lion? It's "plainly designed to push Mac users into a more iPad/iPhone-like ecosystem, where Apple gives you permission to use the computers you buy in only the ways Apple considers appropriate. The writing has been on Apple's wall for some time. It's aiming for absolute authority over the ecosystem in which all its devices operate." In other words, it's the "Steve Jobs Big Brother 1984" meme dressed up in a rented tuxedo. The Mac App Store is the harbinger of a future where only Apple-approved apps will run on your Mac. Inversed "natural" scrolling, fullscreen apps, and Launchpad are Apple's way of brainwashing us all into buying iPads and iPhones. Macs and iPads living together, MASS HYSTERIA.

"By rejecting its past so thoroughly -- a proud history of creating devices that we users could modify for our own purposes with no one's permission but our own -- Apple is forcing me to move on," Gillmor says. I don't know if he's been paying attention for the past decade, but user-modifiable devices haven't been Apple's forte since the late 90s. You can't even swap out the batteries on Apple's notebooks without a trip to the Genius Bar, and the whole idea that you can build your own Mac out of off-the-shelf parts is one that's been dead for a long time for all but the most dedicated, persistent, and above all masochistic of hobbyists.

Let's say he's talking about the software, and not the hardware. It is, after all, Lion's purported intransigence that's driving Gillmor away from the platform. For someone who espouses Linux (of all things) as a viable alternative to OS X, he doesn't seem to give much credit to the OS X Terminal, or the Mac's ability to run Windows (or even Linux!). I don't know a chmod from a grep without Google holding my hand, but I can still do things in the OS X Terminal that simply aren't practical (or, often, possible) in the Finder. I wouldn't install Windows on my MacBook Pro unless someone paid me (a lot) to do it, but I know full well that I can.

It's not as though tripping the Lion fantastic is a difficult proposition. For US$30, you can download it and see for yourself whether it's Jobs's Gift to Mac Users or The Death Knell of OS X. You don't even have to change out of your "play clothes" and drive to the Apple Store in order to get Lion. Stay home, stay in your bathrobe, download Lion, and at least give the thing a 24-hour spin before you decide that it's bad enough to warrant leaping wildly onto a Linux-chugging ThinkPad.

Remember when you were six years old, and you insisted that you HATED broccoli, and your mom said, "How do you know you hate it if you've never tried it?" It's pretty much the same principle here, guys.

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