The future of Mac is not for the faint of heart nor the spinning drive

Apple (s aapl) teased the next installment of OS X, 10.7 Lion, once again at WWDC on Monday. This time around, we got a more concrete release window: users will be able to upgrade come July. But this upgrade might leave a lot of users cold, even as it paves the way for wider adoption of OS X down the road.

Lion is a significant change for OS X, both from a development back-end perspective, and for end-users, too. In fact, it may represent the most significant update of any point release since the introduction of Mac OS 10.0. And as the saying goes, you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.

In this case, the eggs in question might be some technologies that users aren’t quite ready to let go. Lion is demanding, especially with all the visual flourishes, like transitional animations, enabled. Apple has already said that older Intel Macs (those that don’t use the Intel Core 2 Duo processor or higher, or that have less than 2 GB of RAM installed) won’t be able to come to the party, and even those that aren’t so old (two years or more) might not be able to handle the demands without some customizations or after-market upgrades. Users won’t be able to jump right from Leopard to Lion, either, as they’ll need to have Snow Leopard and the Mac App Store (which arrived with a later Snow Leopard update) installed in order to even run the Lion upgrade software, which will be available only through digital distribution.

Don’t get me wrong, Lion should technically work for Macs that are just starting to show their age, so long as they meet the minimum requirements, but they probably won’t shine, and they won’t be as good at playing nice with the features that make Lion so desirable.

Let me say it plainly: Lion seems very much designed for use with modern processors, lots of RAM, and, most importantly, computers with SSD storage, and the presence of each of these components definitely improves the experience. The whole point of feature additions like Resume, Auto Save and Versions is that the Mac become, like the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, a machine that can be turned on and off as desired, without undue waiting, loading or having to worry about traditional startup / shutdown procedures.

It also obviously couldn’t care less about your Mac’s optical disc drive, turning that hardware feature from a must-have to a quaint convenience thanks to the Mac App Store. The reality of solid state, disc drive-less personal computing became more tangible with the arrival of the new MacBook Air. But it’s still not the dominant model, and Lion is clearly designed for a future where it is. Luckily, you can take a shortcut to the future by replacing your existing MacBook’s optical drive with an SSD, which should help greatly improve instant-on startup times when you upgrade to Lion.

I’m glad Apple is taking a bold step forward with Lion, since hopefully it means big changes are in store for how we approach personal computing, even if it means some of my Macs won’t be able to come along for the ride. But if you’re planning to upgrade, keep in mind that more than any update since perhaps the introduction of Intel processors to Mac computers, Lion bring with it a significant adjustment period, for developers and uses alike.