Why OS X Lion is the biggest test for digital downloads

Sometime next week, most likely July 14, we could see the anticipated arrival of Mac OS X Lion (s aapl), according to multiple reports. But this is no ordinary major software launch. The twist is that Lion will be distributed digitally, the first version of OS X ever for which that is true. Not only that; it will only be available as a download from the Mac App Store, and that’s why this is the launch everyone will be watching with bated breath.

Ready to ditch discs?

Apple is putting a lot of faith in the fact that its customers are ready to leave physical install media behind, and instead wholly embrace a digital distribution model. That’s the whole idea behind the Mac App Store, of course, and it has worked out very well for mobile software with the original App Store for iOS devices. But will Mac users be willing to take it to the next level, and welcome digital delivery even for that most essential software component, the core desktop operating system?

Our recent poll on the subject indicates that many will be upgrading, and that most will do so as soon as the 10.7 update becomes available. Only a tiny 3.4 percent of all those surveyed didn’t plan on upgrading at all. Those results favor Apple’s decision pretty highly, but they also probably aren’t a terribly accurate representation of the population at large, since our readership here at GigaOM tends to lean toward the early adopter end of the spectrum.

The old barriers, and some new ones

Typically, new operating systems are greeted cautiously by consumers. For example, take a look at the chart below, taken from a Net Applications report on OS market share in May. It shows the trajectory of Apple’s last few major OS updates, and you can see that adoption of each tends to start relatively slow and grow steadily over their lifetime. People can be hesitant about major OS changes, since it’s the software they depend on most heavily, and unfamiliarities necessitate an adjustment period some would rather not deal with. But Apple may be setting itself up for a lower than normal initial pool of upgraders, because Lion is digital-only, and because it requires 10.6.8, the most recent update, to be installed.

Because OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard is already so well represented among OS X users, it’s good for Lion’s prospects. Installing Lion requires the Mac App Store, which is only available for Macs using Snow Leopard, but a good number of Macs should fall into the category of those technically able to upgrade.

We’ve also talked about the risk Apple is taking with regard to customers who may have poor Internet connections, or severely restricted bandwidth allowances for their home connections. Some reports suggest Apple might get around that for some notebook users by offering Apple Store wireless as a means to download the update, but that’s not a practical solution for everyone.

Digital supply and demand

Apple has also had hiccups with major digital software launches in the past. Download speeds have been slow for past iPhone OS (now known as iOS) launches, and in some cases demand brought Apple servers down for extended periods. Apple now has a new data center facility which should help alleviate the strain, but at around 4 GB per copy, Lion stands a chance of causing a strain on the Mac App Store servers as early adopters rush to grab it.

The Lion launch, whether it comes next week as rumored or later on, could represent a major turning point in how we approach software distribution. But there’s also a small chance that it could turn out to be a moment when consumers say “we’re not ready for this just yet,” sort of like what pro users have been saying about Final Cut Pro X. Which way do you think the wind will blow?