The Post-Optical Disc Era Gets Off To A Rocky Start With The OS X Lion Beta

If there was any doubt in peoples’ minds that Apple intends to kill off the optical disc, it was put to rest today. This morning’s unveiling of the OS X Lion Developer Preview came with the news that it would only be available one way: through the Mac App Store. And while Apple wouldn’t say if they intended to release the final version of Lion to consumers this summer in the same way, it’s pretty clear that they’re going to do just that.

But this important push into the post-optical disc era hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for all so far.

Since the beta was first put up for download this morning, angry developers have flooded Apple’s forums. Why? Because many can’t install the software. But it’s not a bug in the OS itself that’s preventing them from doing it, it’s a bug in the distribution method — the Mac App Store.

In the past, when Apple has distributed test software to developers, they’ve done so through a website devoted to that. Once a developer entered their credentials, they could get access to a download link to get the software. But with the new method in place for OS X Lion, Apple had developers log in and get a special redemption code that they were told to use in the Mac App Store to get OS X Lion.

For some, that worked just fine. But once a large rush of developers started hitting the Mac App Store, deployment slowed to a crawl. And at points, things were at a total stand-still, several developers tell us. Given the interest, that’s somewhat understandable, except for the fact that if the connection to the Mac App Store was interrupted, paused, or cancelled after the download had started, it then became impossible to download OS X Lion at all.

This is apparently a bug in the deployment system. It seems that Apple is limiting downloads of the beta software installer to one machine. You can install the software on multiple machines, but you have to copy the installer from one machine to another manually. You cannot re-download it as you can with other software distributed through the Mac App Store.

And once the one-time download starts, Apple apparently assume it’s going to finish and they cut you off from being able to resume or restart a download. Hence the swarm of angry developers unable to get access to Lion today.

Clearly, this more strict distribution model is in place to prevent piracy and to ensure that regular users don’t move over to Lion before it’s ready to really show its stripes. But the situation today has been bad enough to lead many developers to question why Apple just didn’t stick with the old method for developer distribution. And it’s lead others to question the distribution method itself for such a high-scale roll-out.

Presumably, by going this route today, Apple wanted to further test the CD-killing system they’ve spent time and money building. Up until now, it has run pretty smoothly since its launch in January. And Apple undoubtedly needed to test the ability to dish out huge software downloads via this method — things like the final build of OS X Lion. It’s definitely better that they get the bugs out now, rather than when consumers flood the store to get Lion this summer.

I suspect we may end up seeing a hybrid launch this summer, with Apple using both DVDs in their retail stores/website and the Mac App Store to sell Lion. And perhaps Apple may even give those who decide to go the Mac App Store route, a discount. The one tricky thing about pure software distribution are system restores. Apple got around using an optical disc for this with the new MacBook Airs by using a USB stick. Perhaps they’ll include details on how to make your own such stick/disc if you download OS X from the Mac App Store.

With talk of MobileMe and other retail boxes vanishing from Apple Store shelves, this software distribution method is clearly the future for the entire platform. But it’s a future that’s still a work in progress.