OS X Lion Thoughts

Lion has been released. It represents the future for Mac OS. But how does it fit it the greater scheme of things? Is OS X dead and about to be replaced with iOS?

I think there is a lot of unfounded paranoia about the iOSification of Mac OS. I view Lion as the first 21st century operating system. It's actually a decade late! It's doing what other operating systems should have done long ago.

I'm only going to discuss some new features that change the way one creates content. There have been many changes affecting content consumption, some of which are very controversial. But I'll leave that for another time.

Keep Those Apps Running

Todays computers have lots of memory, so why are we shutting down apps when we are (temporarily) finished with them, only to launch them again a short time later. No wonder SSDs are becoming popular even at their high prices! What if we never shut down our applications? Then they would launch again instantly. Better than SSD performance at a much lower cost.

Lion is designed for keeping applications running. If space runs short, it will silently close applications that aren't in use. So avoid using Command-Q to quit applications. Use Command-H to hide them if they are in the way. I'm writing this in Dreamweaver but I've got 14 apps running with only Dreamweaver and Finder being visible. I'm using 5.7 GB of RAM, but I still have 2 GB free. Free memory is wasted memory. The system is far more responsive to application switching now I avoid Command-Q.

How can you tell if Lion shuts down your applications? How do you know which applications are running? The answers are basically "you can't tell" and "you don't care." Apple "chickened-out" by leaving the little indicators in the Dock activated, but there is a setting to turn them off. I've got mine off. The trend has been there -- running applications were more obvious in the Dock in Leopard, became subdued in Snow Leopard, and will certainly be undetectable after Lion.

If the system shuts down your applications as needed, what becomes of the open documents? Lion saves them, and restores them after restarting. Same thing as happens if you happen to shut down an application, or you shut down the entire computer. A scary proposition that has many people upset, but the solution to the issues involve a number of other new features that work together: Auto-save, Versions, and Resume. But making it all work involves rethinking how we use computers. The 20th Century techniques can cause problems.

Auto-save and resume are not new. Databases always work that way -- consider iCal and Address Book. Same for notebook applications like Circus Ponies Notebook on the Mac or Microsoft One Note on Windows. OS X Lion carries this across all applications.


For the casual user, Resume has caused the most shock. Basically Resume means that when an application starts up it will be in the same state, looking at the same document, as it was when it was shut down. Shut down Safari on a XXX web page? Then when you start Safari again (or someone else using your account starts Safari) it will be on that same page. Suddenly a convenient feature, and a necessary component for keeping apps running can lead to potential embarrassment.

But the solution to the problem is to embrace keeping apps running by closing windows when done rather than closing applications. Always use Command-W or the Red Button rather than Command-Q.

I've had problems with the reverse problem. I've gotten used to closing the Mail window when I'm not using mail -- the Red Button -- so the mail program will continue to poll for incoming mail. When I'm at work, in Windows and using Outlook, I all too frequently close the Outlook window when I'm finished reading mail. Unfortunately this closes the application. Then I go the rest of the day thinking I've got no new mail!


Many applications have had autosave built in for many years, but Lion has gone and provided autosave support as part of the operating system services. Obviously important for Resume to work properly, it also protects against program crashes. It puts an end to the mantra "save frequently". Command-S is still there, but you only need it if you want to force a save. And why would you want to force a save when it is autosaving? To mark a particular state you might want to recover to using Versions.

Because of autosave, the system no longer prompts if you want to save a modified file when you exit an application or close the window (remember -- we don't want to shut down apps anymore!). The file is simply saved for you automatically.

But this brings up another issue. What if you don't want to save the modified file? Before, you could just close the window and answer in the dialog that you don't want to save changes. Now there are two new techniques as well as safeguards of Duplicate and Document Locking. The first technique, that replaces not saving, is the "Revert to Saved..." that will take you back to when the file was last opened. There is a more powerful technique that will take you back to any place in time -- Versions.


Versions is basically TimeMachine for individual documents. It can be used to restore to any saved point, and will even use TimeMachine to go back before Lion. But it has a new twist that makes it better than just going back in time -- you can copy and paste any part of an old version into the new. It's a selective, non-linear restore. And since you can paste back into any arbitrary place in the current document, and even make changes to the current document, it becomes an intriguing editing technique as well.

I will mention that Versions has a few problems. It saves the older version differences in a hidden folder on the drive. If you copy the document it won't have any older versions -- this is a plus and a minus. It is a minus in that Versions won't work for collaborations. Versions also doesn't work for documents stored on FAT formatted drives (typical for USB flash drives) or, as far as I've been able to determine, on server shares. You might discover that Versions won't save you from an accidental deletion. It does work during the period of time a document is open, but as soon as it is closed (perhap by Lion itself) the versions are gone.

Another issue I've found is that it is difficult to move around in Versions -- there are no arrows on the screen (nor any keyboard commands) to move in time.

New Documents

No big surprises with new documents other than the autosave/resume.

New documents are usually created with Command-N. New documents will autosave when edited or the application is quit (only to resume as "unnamed" when the application is restarted). This means that if you quit the applciaton you won't be asked if you want to save the document -- it will be saved automatically. When the window is closed (Command-W) the user is prompted for a name to save the document. At that time you also have the option not to save the document.

Duplicate instead of Save-As

Lion applications don't have a Save-As command (at least most don't). Instead they have Duplicate. The duplicate behaves like a new, unnamed document, with no version history, and appears in a new window.

So Duplicate followed by Command-W replaces Save-As. It's an extra step, but actually less likely to cause confusion. Quick, answer this question -- when you do a Save-As is the document you can then continue to edit the original or the saved? Answer -- it is the saved document. Probably not what you really want (I know it never was for me), and Duplicate gives you the choice to edit either or both documents moving forward.

There are some other approaches made available using Finder:

Document Locking

Document locking is a new feature that helps to prevent accidental modification of documents. The time-to-lock is set in the TimeMachine Preference Panel (admittedly an odd location) and is two weeks by default. Applications that support autosave will not allow editing documents that haven't been modified for longer than the time to lock or have been manually locked.

A locked file is indicated by the word "locked" in the title bar. Click on the document name in the title bar brings up a menu that allows changing the lock state. Also, attempting to edit a locked document brings up a dialog that asks if you want to unlock the document or create a duplicate and edit that. Your editing action gets held until you decide. That means that if you tried to paste text, as soon as you agree to unlock or duplicate the paste will occur.