Stumbling into awesome

I was overjoyed yesterday to see that FedEx came a day early to deliver my new MacBook Pro. As one might expect, I quickly opened up the boxes and started setting it up.

I knew this was going to be a big step forward. It replaces the MacBook Pro that I bought five years earlier, which had replaced an old G3 iBook. The difference between that iBook and the MBP was big under the hood, but it meant little in day-to-day use because the OS hadn't changed much at all. This time, however, that was not the case.

Mac OS 10.7 ("Lion") demonstrates a sea change in the way Apple sees people interacting with computers. After all, they have had well over four years of experience with the iPhone and their other touchable devices to understand the way people use them and how that experience differs from the classic mouse & keyboard experience. They have taken that knowledge, mixed it with what they know about the m&k gig, and have baked it all into a new OS that is at once very much like the old one, yet very different from it. The difference lies in one's approach.

I've been using Lion on a test basis for about a month, having installed it on a vintage 2008 white MacBook. I was expecting things to be radically different from Snow Leopard (10.6). They were different, yes, but not radically so. The most radical difference was in the way my mouse's scroll wheel worked. It was suddenly backward. I would scroll down with the mouse and watch my page scroll up. Huh? Then I realized that that is an approximation on the iPad (et al) experience. Okay, that makes sense, but I still don't like it. Fortunately there's an option button to put things back they was I am used to them.

Apart from that, though, the transition was very smooth. Some things in the Finder have changed a lot--mostly for the better, but the overall experience was of not being overwhelmed, as I had feared.

Then came my new MacBook Pro, all shiny and new and packed to the gills with Awesome. I moved my old account over to it as quickly as I could and started really playing with it. I should point out that all of this playing has been done with just the stock MBP--no external keyboard and mouse. Nothing but the built-in keyboard and trackpad.

Here's a good time to confess that I have never been a big trackpad fan. To me they are inaccurate and somewhat limiting in that they don't always offer very fine control. Plus, they don't do the click & drag move very well at all. For someone who works with graphics a lot (like me), that's not good. But to be fair, a lot of that negative bias is based on having been exposed to the earliest of trackpads in the early 90's--an unimpressive lot to be sure. Things definitely improved a few years ago when Apple started doing multitouch gestures with their trackpads. Suddenly they became a lot more useful, but still a poor substitute for a good ol' mouse.

Since I still needed my old MBP to occupy the workstation in my studio, I set about using my new MBP with the keyboard and (gulp) trackpad on my dining table. I really didn't give it a whole lot of thought until I started doing things accidentally. After all, I was approaching it the way I have always approached trackpads: as a poor substitute for a mouse. It didn't occur to do more than that. I was using Safari and--quite by accident--let two fingers glide across the trackpad from left to right ever so briefly. As it happened, I saw the web page shift partially off the screen to reveal the page that had come before it. It was as if I has partially pressed the Back button or something. Then I realized that that was pretty mch was I had done! That little gesture acomplishes the same as the back button.

Whoa! It may sound insignificant that a simple gesture replaces a simple mouse click, but the beauty of it lies in the fact that it happens without the need to coordinate cursor coordinates with the mouse and click on the proper button. It's instinctive, intuitive, and can happen without the slightest distraction. That, I am finding out, is the simple power of these gestures.

A few years ago Apple introduced Spaces to OS 10.5. It fundamentally changed the way I work with apps. Suddenly I could compartmentalize the applications I have open, rather than having them dogpile on one another in a single screen. One app could be in screen 1, another in screen 2--and knowing that, I could better compartmentalize my own work in that visual metaphor. It was like having two desks to work at instead of just one.

I also liked how easy it was to navigate among the different spaces. With one hand I could use the Control and cursor keys to jump either horizontally or vertically to get where I needed to go.

Thus it was with a heavy heart that I read Apple had gotten rid of Spaces, merged it with Expose (another means of arranging ones open apps) and renamed it Mission Control. In this scheme, new spaces could be opened on demand. They weren't always there. They also require that several steps be taken to set them up. The ease of Spaces was suddenly gone, and I was sad about that.

Until today, that is. In my quest for more gestures I spotted two that directly affect Mission Control: I can use one gesture to invoke MC, and then use its opposite to close it. I can also switch among open spaces by three-finger-swiping left or right. Once again the model of working without distraction is in play. I need not take my eyes off of wherever they are while working. My hand is by the trackpad anyway, so I can simply swipe a certain intuitive way and get to what I need. Utterly brilliant.

In a very short time I have become a firm believer in the way of the trackpad. It has gone from annoying to awesome in a big, big way. Lion with a mouse and keyboard is fine, but it really shines when used with a trackpad. Really.

I mentioned before that the 2008 MacBook doesn't recognize the more complex gestures due to its age. Today I finally whipped out the Magic Trackpad that I picked up back in June. It's nothing more than a dedicated external trackpad, but it allows machines of my MacBook's vintage access to the full range of gestures. The one things that bummed me out about it was the fact that it has no button. As I was opening up the control panel to let me invoke the tap-to-click gesture (which I have always loathed), I accidentally (once more) pressed my thumb on the trackpad to click as I do on my new laptop's built-in trackpad. A funny thing happened: it clicked. The little rubber feet under the Magic Trackpad are wired to act as a button. How cool is that?

Needless to say I am really taken with the innovations that Apple has put into Lion. The best part is that I know I'm only scratching the surface. It's going to be fun stumbling upon all the other nifty new features it has!