Just seven months after Lion hit servers, Apple has released OS X Mountain Lion (version 10.8) to developers. This tight development cycle is in support of integrating the best features of Apple's iOS mobile operating system into OS X. As Steve Jobs put it in 2010, Apple intends to "hook up" the user environments of the iPad and the MacBook. The result is a substantial step forward for Apple interconnectivity.
Apple's announcement focuses on ten new features out of more than 100 changes in the OS. Of these, nine are lifted in their entirety from iOS - including Notification Center, AirPlay mirroring, Game Center, Share Sheets, iChat (now Messages), iCal (now Calendar), and Address Book (now Contacts). One entirely new feature is a security module called Gatekeeper, about which we will have more to say later.
A general focus is convergence of OS X with iCloud applications. Reminders and Notes are iCloud-enabled features, and Mountain Lion allows documents to be uploaded directly to the cloud from the File menu. Twitter integration is also a new feature of Mountain Lion with users able to tweet directly from Safari, Quick Look, Photo Booth, Preview and third party apps after a single sign in.
Porting of iOS 5 apps over to OSX has proven to be an efficient approach to the development of Mountain Lion. Apple did not have to test multiple versions of new programs and GUIs to optimize functionality and ensure a good user experience, when they already had such apps in iOS 5.
As is usually the case with Apple, there are some pieces of coal in the stocking. For example, only Mac App Store apps will be allowed to use Notification Center or the deeper levels of iCloud integration. Also the new security module Gatekeeper is strongly biased to work with Mac App Store software.
Let's take a brief look at the new high profile modules:
Notification Center makes it easy to keep up with an ever accelerating rate of connectivity - it provides one place on your desktop where all communications and alerts of importance to you can be found. Emails, instant messages, friend requests, calendar alerts, tweets - all of these trigger Notification Banners which appear on the desktop, then disappear after five seconds. When wanted, simply swipe the trackpad, and the Notification Center appears as shown in the screenshot above. All material is in an ordered list for which you control the ordering priorities.
The Notification Center is highly customizable, allowing you to choose between banners and alerts, add, remove and alter sounds, or disable the module if it diverts too much of your attention. Apple is opening this feature up for the use of developers in the form of an API which will allow their apps to deliver notifications to your Mac in real time.
One important feature is called Documents in the Cloud, which stores all documents created in the iWork software suite. The tight connection with iCloud allows you to edit, for example, a calendar appointment and have that information pushed immediately out to the cloud and down to your other Apple devices. Even if your iPod's calendar app is currently open, the file display will automatically be updated with the new information.
Many of the new OSX applications, such as Messages, Reminders, Calendar, and Notes are seamlessly synced between devices. Third party software will also have access to iCloud capabilities.
Apple's response in Mountain Lion is to replace iChat with iMessage. If on the move, you can continue conservations while switching from a MacBook to an iPhone to an iPad, Messages also supports FaceTime video calls, A beta version of Messages for Lion is available from Apple here.
Reminders is a new dedicated app in Mountain Lion that looks just like the iOS 5 app. A relatively bare-bones app, it lets you record reminders, to-do lists, grocery lists, and the like. You can set a reminder date, change priorities, shuttle information within lists, and sort tasks by date. Reminders seamlessly syncs between iOS, Google, and Yahoo Calendar, as well as the other OSX apps. This is a straightforward program, but once used, if you lose the capability you will miss it.
All operating systems for personal computing have some form of note-taking app, however crude. Apple has again lifted their Notes app directly from another Apple product, this time the iPad Notes app.
Using Notes in OSX is straightforward - a click opens a note, while a double click opens a note in a standalone window which stays open even when you quit Notes. The standalone window can be set to stay on top of the screen stack.
Notes has flexible formatting choices, and also allows you to insert inline images and links. Your notes sync automatically with iCloud, and Notes can also be set up to also sync with Gmail, Yahoo, and other services that support notes.
A developer API is available for using Share Sheets in third-party apps, although the scope of apps with which you can share information is going to be limited. A more formal arrangement with Apple will be required to enable universal use of Share Sheets.
Apple reports that their social gaming network has over 100 million registered users who are provided with access to some 20,000 Game Center-enabled games. This community is only expected to grow now that the MacBook is getting Game Center support. MacBook gamers will now be able to find new games and challenge friends to play live multiplayer games, whether they're on a Mac, iPhone, iPad or iPod touch.
With the Game Kit APIs tapping into the same services as Game Center on iOS, developers will be able to create multiplayer games that work across Mac, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Expect mass porting of iOS games to Mountain Lion this year.
AirPlay Mirroring was introduced originally on the iPad to allow movies and music videos to be played on a large screen HDTV through an Apple TV. On Apple TV the resolution will be limited to 720p and stereo audio, but AirPlay will automatically seek the best rendering when working with any given system.
Oddly enough, iTunes movies and TV shows will appear on the big screen, but will be blanked out on the MacBook owing to license restrictions. Chalk it up to the usual suspects.
OS X, like most of the Mac operating systems, has a reputation for being resistant to malware, viruses, worms, Trojans, backdoors, keyloggers, and the like. This resistance is partly due to program security, and partly due to the limited use of OS X compared to larger-scale targets - ie. Windows. However, Apple does take security concerns seriously. In adding Gatekeeper to Mountain Lion, Apple allows users to restrict the downloading and executing of unvetted apps.
There are three levels of security. The strongest is to allow access only to apps obtained from the Mac App Store. The next level limits access to the Mac App Store and the apps of vetted developers. The lowest level is essentially no added security, allowing apps to be downloaded from anywhere. Gatekeeper is still being tweaked to make it easy for users to understand and use without simply accepting the default settings.
What (or who) is a vetted developer? Called an "identified" developer by Apple, such a person simply has to sign up as a Mac app developer and pay a fee of US$99 per year. The apps of an identified developer are not screened or tested by Apple, so the additional security amounts to knowing that Apple will pull the credentials of a developer who issues bad apps,
Will Apple do this on the first bad app? Will they require a pattern of bad apps? Will requirements differ for major app developers as compared to a one-off developer? These and other questions concerning how Apple will control Gatekeeper's access to apps are somewhat controversial, and will in the end determine if Gatekeeper is a benefit or a detriment to OSX.
Other new features in OSX Mountain Lion include a Chinese language GUI, a search/URL bar for internet searches, similar to that found in Google Chrome, a VIP mail area for your favorite contacts, similar to Priority Inbox in Gmail, and a Re-open windows setting for Shutdown and Restart commands.
The operating speed of Lion and Mountain Lion are reported to be equivalent, but startup and shutdown speeds of Mountain Lion are currently considerably slower than those of Lion. This difference may reflect the beta status of Mountain Lion. Battery life is the same with the two OSX versions.
In summary, Mountain Lion is an incremental evolution of Lion, rather than an OS as different as Windows 8 will be compared to Windows 7. Apple has shipped some 20 million copies of Lion, many of which will probably be upgraded in turn to Mountain Lion, at a very low price point (probably around $30 or so).
The real question is not if Mountain Lion is a significant improvement on Lion - based on the beta demo version released this week to reviewers, it is. More important to users is how long Mountain Lion will occupy the Mac OS pinnacle before OS XI Polar is released. When it is released, will the bear versions of OS XI be sufficiently improved over Mountain Lion to displace it from its potentially secure position? Only time will tell.