The Lion has a thorn in its paw

Imaginary email exchange with Steve Jobs:

Me: Hey the new App Store icon sucks.

Steve Jobs: No it doesn’t.

I actually forgot to watch the event live and ended up watching the video late last night. (So I didn’t “benefit” from getting to watch Jaqui Cheng liveblog it, for what that’s worth.)

tl;dr: iLife ’11 looks great but gimmicky. App Store is probably going to suck before it rocks. New Macbook Airs are fabulous. Lion looks like it has a thorn in its paw.

Overall, I thought this was the lamest “keynote” I’ve seen in a long time, lamer than the announcements during Steve Jobs’s recent absence, and lamer than the recent Music announcement with the horrible new iTunes icon (echoed with the horrible new App Store icon — I shudder to think what’s going to happen to folder icons in Lion).

The new iLife stuff was cute, but it falls in the category of “get a really gorgeous template and then replace the professionally produced photos and video snippets of multiracial models with your less fabulous photos of your distinctly less beautiful friends and family”. I’d love to see someone make a comment about the incredibly gorgeous people they don’t know during one of these presentations, but I digress.

There were four big announcements (I might add that my predictions were pretty accurate, although I was overly optimistic w.r.t. iOS 4.2, XCode 4, and Final Cut Studio — which all fall under the category of “not Mac-consumer-focused”:

iLife ’11 (“today”). iMovie seems to have not only been hugely improved (gimmicks aside) but I’d love to see some of this stuff (along with GarageBand’s waveform-bending) in the next version of Final Cut Studio. Grabbing a selection of sound and just stretching it to fit a time or adjust its levels (complete with automagic smooth interpolation at the edges) is simply a huge improvement over the state of the art.

iWeb and iDVD are now abandonware. I was hoping for an iWeb that sucked less.

Aside: if the full screen features of iPhoto are supposed to be an ad for Lion’s full screen mode, then WTF? They’ve got a freaking menubar floating in the middle of the screen, so goodbye Fitt’s Law. And it all works under Snow Leopard (and fullscreen has always been possible on the Mac, albeit often requiring hacks because Apple deliberately tried to make it hard). Plenty of Apps manage to give you fullscreen views today without breaking the menu bar or losing Fitt’s Law.

App Store (“within 90 days”). This could, in the long term, be a Very Good Thing, but the devil is very much in the details. Can Transmit — say — become an App Store App while giving existing licensees the ability to upgrade without buying a new license? Will it be possible to create App Store apps using, say, Realbasic. (Will Carbon Apps be allowed at all?)

Right now I’m in the position where half the apps I use want to get upgraded almost every time I launch them, and often interrupt my flow of work by trying to force me to upgrade on the spot (and let’s not even get into the notification spam nightmare that Growl has become). If Apple can somehow turn all of this into a badge on the App Store icon that simply fixes everything when I feel like it, this is a big win for me, and a huge win for consumers. App Store approval might also create some friction in the “hey let’s recompile and increment the version number” approach to development that has become rampant.

Macbook Air (“today”). The new Macbook Airs are a brilliant example of design choices. Incredibly small and thin: check. No more keyboard backlighting: not a big loss. No more fragile, stupid port cover: check. 4GB RAM ceiling: check. Truly useful screen resolution: check. SSDs across the board: check. Instant on: dude, Mac OS X has had that for years. (And for the skeptics who doubt the “single finger lid open” — it actually works on the existing Air, I just checked it this morning.)

Very good design. And I suspect that a lot of people who turn up their nose at the 11″ model will change their tune after playing with one (not that I have played with one). The basic point is, if you want a really portable device, it should be as small and light as possible without losing key functionality. If it’s not going to be a serious FCP/Photoshop/Maya box, then it might as well be smaller.

Is this really just Apple’s netbook? No, it has a full-sized keyboard. This is all about Apple making the smallest possible Mac, not the smallest possible computer than can boot Mac OS X (an important and subtle difference). Apple could boot Mac OS X on an AppleTV if it really wanted to. (Yes, I know it has an A4 CPU.)

As for comparable Windows products. Well, there aren’t any. The closest equivalents I can find in the PC world come, unsurprisingly, from Lenovo. The 11″ “IdeaPad” (wow, interesting and original name, huh?) is discounted to $749 (as I write this) with a hard disk, 4GB of RAM, a Core 2 Duo or Core i5 CPU running at 1.3GHz, an Intel GPU, and it weighs 2.76lb (i.e. about as much as the 13″ Macbook Air). You can’t customize it to have a decent GPU, faster CPU, or a flash drive. That’s a $250 “Apple Tax” which gets you 2GB less RAM, an SSD, a faster CPU, and — crucially in the ultraportable realm — smaller size and weight.

Once again, Apple ships a product that the huge and diverse Windows ecosystem can’t actually match on quality or price.

Final note: the new Macbook Air’s come with a reinstaller on a USB key. Now that’s the shape of things to come.

Mac OS X Lion (“Summer 2011”). If you’re paying attention to this video you’ll realize just how broken the demonstration of Lion’s new UI features was.

In Launchpad, every time the presenter touched the mouse it jumped forward not one but several home screens. (He covered his frustration and switched back to the screen he needed so well it struck me he is used to this flaky behavior.) Also note he was demonstrating the product with a “Magic Mouse” and not a “Magic Trackpad” — does it suck even more when used on Apple’s shiny new multitouch device? Ouch.

Worse, in the Exposé demo (which simply reeked from end-to-end) he kept getting stuck. The system wouldn’t toggle views (you could see him repeating his gesture and getting no response) and the way windows were disclosed made no sense at all. Half-baked ideas and half-baked implementation — perhaps the biggest joke I’ve seen in an Apple demo since Copland. (Kudos to the presenter though, he was very smooth. But then he’s the Mac OS X product manager or something so it’s all his fault, too.)

It actually occurred to me while I was watching this demo that it was a honey trap intended for Microsoft and Google consumption. “Hey idiots, copy this.” I can’t imagine such a broken implementation will actually ship, but then Apple has until November 2011 to fix it (yes I know it’s shipping in “Summer”).

So, I have no idea what worthwhile features Lion will offer, but I didn’t see any of them last night.