The schoolteacher running Panther was rightly concerned that her AppleWorks documents might not open under Lion--AppleWorks is an PowerPC program, and requires the absent Rosetta, after all. Fortunately, an Apple Store employee was at her elbow, one of a few who was helping her along in a gleeful conversion to the latest version of Apple's desktop operating system.

I was there at Seattle's University Village, an outdoor lifestyle mall with a modestly sized Apple Store, to scope out Apple's invitation to Mac owners to pop in and get a cup of Lion to go. From the greeter to my last contact over a few hours Thursday morning, I can say the invitation was genuinely made.

This is a terrible conceit, of course: I have sufficient bandwidth at home and at my office to download Lion in well under an hour. And using the App Store in an Apple Store looks more like a typo than a plan. Still, Apple has made a major shift in providing its operating system update initially only in the form of a download. It's worth seeing what people without decent Internet speeds but with an Apple Store nearby might be in for.

Getting started

I arrived not long after the store opened, and told the greeter that my home broadband was too slow (a horrible lie), and could I install Lion in the store? Of course, he said, and directed me to one of several Personal Setup tables, which have power outlets tucked invisibly underneath.

Problems surfaced immediately. I've had issues with the Mac App Store on both my 2010 MacBook Pro and 2007 Mac Pro. Both machines refused to allow me to purchase, install, or download software after initial successes on both, rainbow beach-balling at any click in Purchases or Upgrades.

I solved this on the Mac Pro with advice from regular Macworld contributor Kirk McElhearn. He suggested launching Applications -> Utilities -> Keychain Access, then selecting Preferences. In the Certificates tab, I set OCSP and CRL to Off. These two items are designed to prevent forged or revoked digital certificates used to confirm a valid identity from being used. It's risky to disable them, but the things I do for Apple!

However, this didn't help with the MacBook Pro, the machine I had brought into the Apple Store. I'd opted against the brilliant and slightly evil suggestion by colleagues Jeff Carlson and Ren Caldwell that I wheel my whole desktop setup into the store to see how employees would react. Although, while I was there, I spotted at least three people bringing in iMacs, two of whom set them up on a table. (Neither, it turned out, were downloading Lion. They were there for one-on-one training.)

I flagged down one of the nearly 40 employees in the store, a blue shirt, and he ran me through a few ideas, including shutting down all programs, and performing a restart. He then booked a Genius Bar appointment for me for 75 minutes later. I turned to Twitter for some help while I watched a stream of MacBook Airs get purchased and set free through the doors. And @yesthatkarim came through, pointing me to Apple forums in which people found a correlation between Spotlight being disabled and the App Store failing.

Sure enough, Spotlight's underlying mdworker daemon had been thrashing the processor on my machine a few weeks ago, and without having the time to troubleshoot it, I used commands in Terminal to disable indexing completely. I found the invocations to turn indexing back on, which locked up the machine in a glory of rainbow spinners. A force reboot later, and after a long startup sequence, Spotlight was back in business, and the App Store responded to my demands.

The next hurdle was bandwidth. I don't know how much throughput each Apple Store has at its disposal, but one assumes that it's substantial. However, my heart sank when I saw that it would take more than three hours at the initial speed to download Lion. There may have been three Starbucks within a block of where I sat--I'm not exaggerating--but sadly there wasn't a single coffee shop within the Apple Store. Cursing my luck, I suggested opening such a store-within-a-store to an employee who humored me, then found something else important she had to do at the opposite end of the shop.

Apple Store staff regularly checked in with me to make sure things were going OK. I passed along my findings, but even the technically minded among them didn't seem particularly interested in my solution. I think it was off-script, and that can be a problem in the stores, which remain Stepford-Wifely on message at times. But they were polite and even chummy, and cheered Lion's download on.

After 20 minutes, the download sped up fivefold, and finished in a total of 40 minutes. The install took the usual 40-plus minutes: the 30 stated minutes, then the 10 to 15 minutes that "just a minute left" actually reflects.

Employees that I asked said they had a rush of people in on Wednesday to download Lion, but thought it had thinned out. I couldn't find a single person out of dozens in the Personal Setup part of the store downloading Lion, either. Seattle's distribution of broadband is uneven, and people with service may have from 1 Mbps to 25 Mbps, depending on neighborhood, provider, and time of day. At 1 Mbps, Lion could take over eight hours to download, but that works fine as an overnight operation.

I haven't spent so much continuous time hunkered down in a computer store since the early 1980s, when I haunted a shop near my house that sold Apple IIs, IIIs, and Ohio Scientific computers. It was fascinating to listen in on contemporary conversations, and watch hundreds of thousands of dollars of hardware sail out the door in the few hours I was there.

After the Lion Installer completed downloading, I clicked on the Install button, entered my password, and let it proceed. Apple Store staff checked in regularly with me, at least a dozen times over more than two hours, and one more senior staffer came by immediately after the installer began its work, and nearly high-fived me.

Of course, you don't need to go to an Apple Store to download a Lion installer. It's not serialized, although it has a receipt embedded in it. You can purchase it in the App Store and forego downloading the installer in favor of getting the software copied from a friend or colleague. Or you can wait and spend the premium for the Apple authorized Lion-on-a-stick.

However, I can recommend the in-store installation option. Apple Store employees tend to be unfailingly pleasant, if sometimes a little wide-eyed. One blue shirt skipped, through the store at one point, no smile on her face, which was unironic, hilarious, and bizarre, and a nice surprise. Remember to bring your own coffee.