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Smartphone thinking on a desktop

Smartphone thinking on a desktop
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First Published: Fri, Aug 05 2011. 08 44 PM IST

OS X Lion: Apple’s latest OS is a mix of mobile and desktop features.
OS X Lion: Apple’s latest OS is a mix of mobile and desktop features.
Updated: Fri, Aug 05 2011. 08 44 PM IST
In all likelihood, the mobile phone in your pocket is the best computer you’ve ever owned or used. Any half-decent smartphone from any half-decent brand is going to offer you a computing experience that is superior to a desktop computer’s in many, many ways.
But to appreciate this you must think back to the first time you ever used a desktop computer. Perhaps you were a child and you used a primitive machine at a parent’s workplace. Or you went to a pioneering school that invested, with much fanfare, in a “Computer Lab”.
The details of that first encounter are irrelevant. But in all likelihood it was one of wonderment. You can draw pictures? Holding down “Shift” makes the letters come in capitals? THERE ARE GAMES??!!
Since those days of wonderment, the computer has evolved tremendously. And yet it has also simultaneously and defiantly refused to change.
OS X Lion: Apple’s latest OS is a mix of mobile and desktop features.
Computers have become more versatile. They have better processors, smarter software and sturdier hardware. Yet little has changed in the way we interact with our desktop computers.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are typing a document on a computer and now wish to refer to a Web page you have open in your browser. You wish to copy some text from that Web page and paste it in your document.
First you must switch from your word processing application to your browser. If your browser is not open, you need to summon the app. At worst this could mean minimizing your word processor window, opening a file system manager, navigating to your applications folder, locating the browser application file and then double-clicking to launch it. After this you must type in your website address, wait for the page to load, search for the text you seek and then copy. After this you navigate back to your word processor screen, place the cursor where you want and paste the text.
The astonishing thing is that in the last two decades of computing, this basic process has not changed substantially for the average user.
This explains why most public-use computers are such a mess. Check any machine at a shabby airport Internet café or hotel lobby. Usually the desktops are littered with documents, many of them personal ones like resumes or letter drafts. Orphan browser windows with emails, tickets, schedules and maps are the digital equivalents of empty crushed beer cans and greasy burger wrappers.
Now compare this with the mobile phone in your pocket. Your device can browse, play music, edit documents, take photographs and even edit them.
You achieve all this without once wading through file structures or folders. Good apps need a setting or two. Great apps need none. Switching between apps usually takes no more than a fraction of a second. Apps start instantly. And disappear instantly as well. So then five years after the launch of the iPhone and a clutch of other excellent smartphones, why do our desktop computers still suck so much?
OS X Lion, the latest iteration of Apple’s desktop operating system, is perhaps the first indication of a great rethink that could change all that.
Lion has been reviewed extensively by a plethora of technology writers. So we will not delve into any of those hundreds of tweaks, tricks and optimizations that Apple has built into Lion.
Instead, let us briefly reflect on a handful of additions to Lion that offer a glimpse into the future of a more meaningful desktop computing environment. One prominent reviewer has said that Lion could keep developers engaged for the better part of the next decade as they figure out ways and means of really leveraging the software. This is because Lion is not just an upgrade on old software, but also a somewhat ambitious first attempt at bringing to desktops some of the simplicity and efficiency of the mobile environment.
First of all, Launchpad. Launchpad recreates on the desktop the same app launching system as on most smartphones. A gesture on the Trackpad summons screen upon screen of icons. From here you can launch, delete, rearrange and group icons. Some of the icons even have informative badges—emails unread, time remaining for task completion, and so on.
Then there are a set of features that enable full-screen apps, app switching and desktop management. The philosophy here seems to be directly inspired from the mobile phone: People want to multitask but not like they used to. Rather than have multiple windows open on the same screen, perhaps they prefer to switch from window to window more seamlessly and effortlessly. Like they do on phones. This, combined with an improved desktop management system, makes Lion a joy to multitask meaningfully.
Lion also handles apps and files more sensibly. Quit, say, a word processing app at any time. Even in the middle of a half-written article. The app quietly disappears without any niggling questions about saving. The next time you restart, the app carries on from exactly where you left off.
This is how, you can’t help think, things should have been always.
When the iPad was first launched in 2010, many people dismissed it as an oversized iPod Touch. This was not a serious computing device, they said, this was a ridiculously large MP3 player.
Since then these pundits have been proven wrong by buyers. The iPad has become a device of transformational significance for industries such as media, news and entertainment. It appears that users’ computational needs are determined by more than just the sheer hardware horsepower of devices. It is also determined by how easy these devices are to use, how amenable these devices are for developers and how versatile they are for various kinds of users.
OS X Lion is not the desktop computer’s iPad moment. Enjoying Lion’s potential to any significant degree may be beyond most novice users and anyone averse to experimentation. One of the most popular settings on Lion, going by Internet posts, seems to be the one that turns off the new inverse scrolling setting (Apple says this setting, which is standard on all touch devices, is more natural).
But Lion does point to a future where your computer will begin to behave more and more like your phone or your tablet. No doubt experts will denounce future versions of OS X or Microsoft Windows as having dumbed down your computer. “This just turns your computer,” they will say, “into an oversized tablet with a keyboard and a mouse.”
Who is to say this is a bad thing?
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 05 2011. 08 44 PM IST