Could Lion bring us closer to a Mac home server?

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Apple’s Thursday release of a developer preview of Mac OS X Lion included a number of new features, but few were more surprising than the company’s plans for OS Server. On Apple’s Lion preview page, the company says:

Lion Server is now part of Mac OS X Lion. It’s easy to set up your Mac as a server and take advantage of the many services Lion Server has to offer.

Currently, Mac OS X Server costs $499, or is bundled with a Mac Mini server that costs $999. But with Lion, Mac OS X Server will be provided at the same cost as Mac OS X client, most likely around $129 if Apple sticks with its traditional operating system pricing. To install Lion Server, you would simply choose the Customize option when you run the installer. So every Mac user running Lion will be able to run the server software. And that leads to some interesting speculation about what server features Apple may offer to home users.

Traditionally, servers are used by businesses. Mac OS X Server is relatively easy to set up and use, and many home users work with it, if they have a lot of media files to share or want to run a mail server or Web server. But it’s still not the purview of the average Mac user; the concepts involved in setting up a server can be a bit hard to grasp.

I’ve pointed out that our expanding collections of media files could make a server version of iTunes useful, and perhaps Apple’s goal with Lion Server is a step in this direction.

Imagine one of two scenarios. First, you can use any Mac as a home server, as long as you have the server software. With Lion, everyone will have that—you won’t need to buy a Mac mini server or buy Mac OS X Server software on its own. Lion Server will be able to handle all of the tasks that you need to run a simple server for media files, backups, shared calendars, file sharing, and more. If Apple can simplify the configuration a bit, this could bring these server features to those who want to invest in an extra Mac, or even use an older Mac (as long as it can run Lion) as a digital nerve center in their home.

The second scenario is more interesting. A future version of Mac OS X—say 10.8— could be a hybrid of a client and a server, with a simple preference to turn on the server features you want to use. In that case, home users could dedicate one of their Macs to be used as a sever, but also keep on using it as a client at the same time. It could, for example, house media files, backups, shared files, and more on an external hard disk, but at the same time work as a standard Mac for Web browsing, e-mail and games. (You can currently do some of this with Mac OS X client, but it involves a fair amount of tweaking.)

It’s clear that Apple’s decision to merge the client and server versions of Mac OS X into a single installer is a strong statement that the company wants more people to use the server software. At a time when Apple has stopped selling its high-end Xserve and focused only on the Mac mini server, combining the two versions of Mac OS X shows that the server software is intended to work on any Mac.

Our use of computers has evolved, and any family that has multiple Macs could benefit from centralizing files and backups, sharing calendars, and providing a repository for shared files. Lion Server is a big step forward; the next step may be bringing simplified server features to all Mac users. Your next Mac may be a server, and you might not even notice.

[Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville. Twitter: @mcelhearn Kirk’s latest book is Take Control of iTunes 10: The FAQ.]

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At a Glance
  • At $30 for all of your Macs, the only reason not to upgrade to Lion is because you rely on old PowerPC-based apps that won’t run on it. Otherwise, it’s a great price for a major upgrade.

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