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Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion pushes iOS integration further

Apple's latest operating system OS X 10.8 MountaLiwas released as betversidevelopers.

Apple's latest operating system, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, was released as a beta version to developers.

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Updated: February 17, 2012 10:50AM



The classic “keyboard, mouse, screen, hard drive” form of the personal computer has been smashed to bits and the bits ground to powder. What form should take its place? It’s a fluid concept. All anybody knows for certain is that users have completely rejected the concept of the computer as a stationary appliance that one approaches with reverence and humility.

Today, we all expect our computers to be at hand, wherever we go. We expect them to obsequiously comply with every demand we make of them in every situation, just like a very good dog, or perhaps a very bad celebrity physician.

Thus, this is a time when a company in the computer business needs to back a Philosophy rather than a specific technology or a specific design. A company needs to develop an abstract understanding of how people are meant to use their products, and then they need to commit to that philosophy across the product line. There’s room for plenty of different takes on the Computing Concept, but there’s no room for doubt or waffling.

Apple’s philosophy is no mystery. They see computing as a collection of functions, not a range of hardware or a suite of apps. Those functions should articulate themselves differently depending on where the user is and how deeply they want to get involved. And although these functions should be re-optimized for specific experiences (the phone, the tablet, the desktop) the experience should be so consistent that it all feels of a piece.

They laid all of this out quite explicitly last year with the release of Mac OS X 10.7. The whole theme of Lion was “Back to the Mac”: Apple took a cartload of ideas that seemed to have worked out well on iOS and figured out how to implement them on the Mac. On Thursday, Apple unveiled a preview of Mac OS X 10.8, due to be released sometime during the summer. “Mountain Lion” walks the Mac another mile down that same path. It brings more of the iOS experience to the Mac. Just as strongly, it emphasizes just how important Apple’s new iCloud service is to . . . well, pretty much everything they’re doing.

Notes, Calendars, and Addresses: Remastered from iOS

“Notes” and “Reminders” are new Mac OS apps and they’re practically pixel-for-pixel-accurate reproductions of their iPad counterparts. iCloud ensures that they feel like the same apps, too: any note or To Do item you create or edit using any copy of these apps on any device is instantly pushed to every MacOS or iOS device you own.

iCal and Address Book already received their iPad-influenced makeovers last year as part of the Lion update. For Mountain Lion, Apple’s renaming them “Calendar” and “Contacts” to make the cross-platform experience even more consistent.

Speaking of consistency, the Mountain Lion edition of Mail will no longer include the Notes feature and Reminders will more naturally belong to the Reminders app instead of iCal. It’s a bit of long-overdue housecleaning. In Lion, both of these features stuck out like the burnt-orange fixtures in the one bathroom that still hasn’t been remodeled in the forty years since your house was built. They didn’t really belong where they were, and they harkened to a simpler, cheaper time. Now, both of these functions are in places where the user might actually sensibly go looking for them.

Notification Center

There’s still plenty of shag carpeting scattered here and there in Mac OS X. Mountain Lion represents progress, though. 10.8 will include a new Notification Center, which marks Apple’s first attempt to modernize the mechanism for user alerts since MacOS 8, likely.

The Mac OS Notification Center is another verbatim transcript of an iOS feature. When a 10.8 app needs to communicate something (such as a new email, or the availability of a software update) it can choose to throw up a polite Banner (which appears, waits patiently, and then slides away) or a more attention-getting Alert (which must be acknowledged and dismissed by the user). All alerts are collated in a new iOS-style Center that can be exposed and viewed via a multitouch gesture.

The Dock has always played a part in user notifications, via “badging” app icons with additional info or making the damned things bounce and bounce and bounce like a hyperactive child. Those behaviors are intact in 10.8. But Apple wishes for the Notification Manager to be the single, consistent mechanism for user notifications, and so all other styles of alerts are now verboten. Only God can make a tree and from Mountain Lion onward, only Apple can make the whole screen flash red and blue while a horn sounds and a suspiciously-calm synthetic female voice urges you to unplug your iMac immediately and then flee the house with only as many children as you can carry.

What’s missing from the MacOS remix of the iOS Notification Center? Widgets. You won’t see stock quotes or weather icons in any of these notifications. Apple still happily point you in the direction of the Dashboard if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Messages

Over the years, iChat has probably ordered and eaten two or three Last Meals and been saved by a phone call from the governor each time. But its luck couldn’t hold out forever. Like most musicians who appear on “Celebrity Apprentice,” iChat’s style and relevance peaked no later than 2002.

iChat est mort. Behold its replacement: Messages — yes, another name-transplant from iOS. I’ve been using it all day and it appears to be iChat with a minor facelift and an expanded roster of responsibilities. Messages supports most any IM mechanism you can name (including SMS), plus Apple’s own iMessage transport system and FaceTime video chat.

It doesn’t really look like much, but it’s good to have every IM-related function gathered together under the same app. It also underscores the Apple philosophy of one consistent experience that migrates smoothly across all devices. You can hold an hourlong conversation on your Mac and then pick up your iPhone and continue right on arguing about the season premiere of Doctor Who during your bus ride to work.

Messages is a little bit fidgety in its current state. The old iChat-style AIM Buddy List sits awkwardly next to the slick iPad-style unified Messages window. And though the “start a conversation here, continue it there” trick works, you have to make a few adjustments so that Messages knows what you expect it to do when you get up and walk away.

Messages is available today from Apple as a free public beta. Two warnings: it requires 10.7.3 (you’ll want to run Software Update first) and it’ll stop working after 10.8 is released.

Share Sheets

The Share button is one of the most useful features of my iPhone and iPad. This is the once-mysterious and now-ubiquitous little button you’ll find in the corner of most iOS apps. You tap it to shares the thing you’re looking at with the outside world, as when you want to Message a link to a friend or Tweet a photo from your Camera Roll.

In MacOS 10.8, it’s the same button and it has the same functions. Tweet it, Email it, send a picture to your Flickr account or a video to Vimeo or YouTube, AirDrop a file to someone . . . on and on. Tap and a little sheet drops down where you can fill in the particulars. In most cases, you won’t even need to leave the original app. You can compose a Tweet or tag a new Flickr post directly from the drop-down Sharing sheet.

The most notable exception is when you want to share something via email. The Sharing button creates a new message with the shared information pre-loaded.

I’m not exactly skeptical about Sharing on Mac OS. I’m just curious to see if it’s just as useful on the desktop as it is on a iOS devices. My iPhone is a casual computer and I’m used to simply accepting that it can’t be the perfect tool for everything. I’m not used to accepting limitations on a desktop OS. I instinctively expect and hope that a feature can enhance my whole user experience.

That’s why I’ve been so impressed with Windows 8’s machine-wide sharing feature, for instance. If I’m looking at a photo, sure, I can tweet it out . . . but I can also send it to a photo app for editing. A four or five-step process (Copy, go to app launcher, launch app, create new document, confirm that the dimensions should match whatever’s on the clipboard, paste) is reduced to a single tap in a single menu.

Mac OS Sharing isn’t quite that flexible. Its purpose is the same as its purpose in iOS: it’s there to help you send things to friends and post things to social media networks.

I’m slightly bummed by another limit: it’s not open to third-party plugins. Any developer can easily add a Sharing button to their app, but only Apple gets to decide what functions and services show up in that menu. When I first heard about Sharing Sheets on MacOS, I immediately thought “Instapaper.” That’s the wonderful service by Marco Arment that accepts the URLs you send it (via a browser bookmarklet, a plugin, or simply by emailing a link to a special address) and turns the content of those webpages into ebooks that you can download and read at your leisure, straight from your mobile device.

It’s a natural for a system-wide Sharing feature but alas, that’s not Marco’s decision to make.

The good news is that the feature doesn’t appear to limit Sharing to a subset of content types. Text, pictures, sound, video . . . if a service supports a type of media, Sharing will support it as well.

Incidentally, Twitter is now a core Mac OS resource. Any app that wants to support Twitter in some fashion can just do so via the Mac’s own account authorizations; for the user, a single sign-in enables all apps.

Apple has wired Twitter into everything. Even the Mac’s QuickLook feature (which allows you to preview almost any kind of file or media without opening another app) sports a new button for Tweeting what you’re peeping.

Gaming

I wasn’t terribly interested in Game Center when it made its first appearance on iOS. I’ve no instinctive desire to share my scores with friends; the shame I bear for amassing high scores in Tapper World Tour is my shame alone.

But in retrospect, it’s another natural reflection of Apple’s “one experience, expressed via multiple devices” philosophy. The game data and social relationships you build via the games on your iOS devices will transfer seamlessly to new Mac games that are wired up for Game Center functions.

Apple has also brought their GameKit framework to MacOS. It’s a unified system for peer-to-peer network gaming, in-app voice chat, and all of the chocolate-frosted Game Center stuff.

AirPlay

My reaction to AirPlay was simple: “It’s a great feature. I bet the recording industry will do everything they can to ruin it.”

(Yes, I’m a cynical, coal-hearted bastard.)

AirPlay is Apple’s standard for streaming audio and video to a compatible receiving device over Wifi. You’re looking at a YouTube video on your iPhone, everyone else in the living room is asking what’s so funny, you tap the AirPlay button, tap the name of the Apple TV connected to the 60-inch HDTV, and the screen lights up. Presto: the shame of the young man who apparently had memorized every facet of the “Powdered Creamer Fireball” episode of “Mythbusters,” except for the “Don’t try this at home” disclaimer at the beginning, becomes known to four new people.

Many iOS apps exploit AirPlay for dual-screen functions. Keynote, for example, can put a timer and a presentation navigator on your iPad while the big conference room screen shows slides. If you have the latest iPad or iPhone, you can even mirror the device’s display. Everything you see on your handheld screen is up their on your 60-inch HDTV as well, move for move.

AirPlay on MacOS is slightly simplified: it only supports mirroring. But I’m pleased to report that the screen doesn’t go black if you attempt to play copy-protected iTunes Store video and (according to my sources) there’s nothing that should prevent even the DVD Player app from mirroring correctly.

Though I’m waiting to try that for myself. Remember that DVD Player is the app that disables screen capture while a movie window is open.

AirPlay resolution is currently limited to 720p, which is the limit of the current-generation AppleTV.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this limitation won’t last through the spring, however.

Gatekeeper

Mac users don’t suffer the same plague of malware that crushes the souls of so many Windows users, and forces so many Windows notebooks to be nuked from safe orbit every year. This pleasant state of affairs is largely due to the fact that the malware industry considers Macs to be a less-attractive target.

Apple’s very smart to double the locks while their doors are still tightly closed. Gatekeeper is designed to prevent the user from launching any Suspicious Apps.

How does Mountain Lion define “Suspicious”? That’s up to the user. At its most obtrusive setting, Gatekeeper will only permit the user to launch apps that have been purchased and downloaded from Apple’s own App Store. Each of these apps has been vetted and accepted by Apple, so the risk of any of these apps containing malicious code is minimal.

At the other extreme? Gatekeeper does nothing. Go ahead. Download God knows what from God knows where and let it do whatever the hell it wants. It’ll all end in tears, but Gatekeeper has been over and over and over this with you a million times until it’s blue in the panel and it supposes this is the only way you’ll ever learn, which is not to say that it doesn’t break Gatekeeper’s heart, etc.

Gatekeeper’s “middle ground” setting is its most interesting. The App Store is the simplest, easiest, and safest way for users to find interesting apps and buy them. But many developers don’t want to submit their apps to the Store. Apple will reject any app that fails to conform to a set of technical guidelines and many developers find those rules impossibly burdensome.

The user wants there to be a way that they can trust that an app is good and mitigate the damage if an app is bad. Developers want the freedom to distribute apps without subjecting themselves to Apple’s guidelines. Apple is trying to make both groups happy with a new Developer ID program.

After a developer has signed up for the program and thoroughly established his or her identity to Apple, they can digitally “sign” their apps with a unique, secure ID generated by Apple. The best part from the developer’s perspective is that it’s a rubberstamp procedure. Apple doesn’t even look at the app.

So what purpose does all of this serve?

Gatekeeper confers to third-party apps a few safeties and assurances that otherwise would only be associated with App Store downloads. First, the app is from a known, proven source and not some nefarious ne’er-do-well hiding behind an untraceable false identity. Secondly, the OS can immediately confirm that an app hasn’t been tampered with since its installation.

And finally, if that app does turn out to be malicious, Apple can revoke its signature and no Mac will allow it to run.

All of this only applies if the user has enabled Gatekeeper to allow signed apps. The user can still let their Mac become a free-love zone if that’s what they really want.

There seems to be little reason for users and developers not to support this scheme. Developers can get an app signed in less than an hour (sometimes in as little as five minutes) and the whole system is free, without any new restrictions on where or how the app can be sold. Gatekeeper won’t interfere with the launch of legit, signed apps. Ninety-nine percent of Gatekeeper’s functions happen at the local level. The only consequence of your Mac being off the Internet is that it won’t receive updates to its internal list of blacklisted malware. But it’ll sound the alarm and release the hounds the moment it finds an Internet connection again.

It’s inevitable that some apps will prove incompatible with Gatekeeper. I’m keen to discover what happens with a signed app that recompiles its own code as part of its normal, safe function (and such beasts do exist). Will this count as “modified from its original form” and trigger Gatekeeper’s ire?

Documents In The Cloud

Documents In The Cloud?

Wait, that feature was supposed to be functional last year, wasn’t it? I remember it distinctly. Apple kept promoting it as part of the launch of iCloud. All of the documents you store in iCloud are automatically kept in sync with every machine associated with your iCloud account. It was a lovely video.

Why are we even talking about it as a new 10.8 feature? Because this feature doesn’t work at all in Mac OS 10.7.

Oh, it works great on iOS. For cheap thrills, I sometimes keep Pages open on my iPhone while I edit a document on my iPad. I take my hands off of the keyboard for a moment and look at the iPhone screen. The thumbnail representing that same file on my iPhone quietly dogears in its little gallery until it receives the three sentences I’ve just typed, and then it un-dogears itself.

Brill!

Ah, but I’m really not a devotee of the “iPad and an iPhone” workflow. No, I create new a document on my MacBook and then during a day or three of writing and editing I move between my notebook, my iPad, and my office iMac. If I used Documents In The Cloud for this, then every transition I make between desktop and iOS devices would require that I use a very pretty, but conceptually-frustrating webapp to move the file in and out of iCloud.

Result: I never ever use Documents In The Cloud. I continue to rely on Dropbox for all of my cloud document management.

In Mountain Lion, Documents In The Cloud works exactly the way you’d hope. The Mac’s standard open/save dialog now has two sides. One is the familiar Finder-style navigator and it works with all of the files on your local hard drive. The other side is iCloud, and the user interface on your Mac looks (sing it with me) exactly like the document libraries in Apple’s iOS apps.

Your iCloud docs are represented as thumbnail previews. You don’t even get folders and subdirectories. Them’s old-fashioned! Instead, you can create “groups” by dragging one document on top of another, iOS-style.

Documents In The Cloud might be Mac OS 10.8’s most ambitious feature. That’s the impression I’m left with when I consider its effect on a user’s daily workflow (intensely positive), the amount of work that developers need to do in order to make it work properly (many have switched from beer to gin, or from gin to something that Hunter S. Thompson would have sprinkled on his Wheat Chex), and how Documents In The Cloud might disrupt the Mac app marketplace (very much yesly).

Documents In The Cloud is iCloud’s “wow” feature. People have seen contacts and calendar syncing before, and iTunes In The Cloud is just one of many ways to access a large music library from a limited mobile device.

Documents In The Cloud is unique. It’ll get compared to Dropbox, but the two are nothing alike. Dropbox is a conventional file system, extended to a remote server. In Documents In The Cloud, Apple’s created a new way of defining files and data, conceived from the ground up as a cloud service.

It redefines the concept of a file system. It also refines Apple’s whole product line. The iPad will seem less like an accessory and more like a primary computer once Documents In The Cloud becomes fully armed and operational; it encourages the user to forget about location and just assume that your iPhone, your iPad, and your MacOS are the exact same machine in three separate guises.

Documents In The Cloud is disruptive to developers because it moves the goalposts. Mac OS 10.8 will create an implicit understanding that docs are supposed to be accessible everywhere. A Mac word processor that lacks an iOS counterpart won’t be considered deficient, exactly . . . but it’ll be thought of as something less than a premium app. If Documents In The Cloud truly takes off, this distinction will mark the difference between an app that a developer writes as a hobby and the one that covers his car payment every month.

Put it this way: I’m writing this column in Pages, even though it’s not my favorite word processor. Why? Because my actual favorite word processor is only available for Mac and Windows and it’s too much of a bother to convert file formats every time I want to grab my iPad and the car keys and do a little editing at the coffeeshop.

Yes, I’m willing to choose a word processor based solely on the availability of a file-compatible iOS app. Can you imagine how easy my buying decisions will become when there are apps that are multiplatform and which can also turn document management and syncing into a total nonissue?

Chinese Localizations

Finally, there’s China. My readership in this spritely region of the world isn’t as vocal as we’d all like, but Apple’s doing gangbuster business there. So it’s time for Mac OS to improve its support of China’s unique quirks . . . both the country’s linguistic ones and its political ones.

For the former, MacOS 10.8 has received some fascinating tweaks to its text input mechanism. Users normally input pictograms as a series of Roman characters that approximate phonetic pronunciation. The variety is endless and change is constant, so the input system has to constantly be refreshed to adapt.

Users also often mix in English where appropriate, as when I was walking through Boston’s Public Garden and overheard some foreign tourists talking about the park’s signature equestrian statue by Thomas Ball: “(something in Russian something in Russian) George Wash-ing-ton (something in Russian . . . )” Mac OS X 10.8 can handle those cross-cultural blurps with a dash of added elan.

On the political side, there’s the Great Firewall Of China to deal with. So the Chinese version of Mountain Lion will support the local equivalents to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.

Just the facts

So when will 10.8 be released? “Sometime this summer,” which could put it as late as September. How much will it cost? Unknown. Can I upgrade from Snow Leopard, or must I pay for a Lion upgrade first? Dunno. What sort of hardware will it require? Answer unclear; ask again later.

It bears mentioning that this is the soonest that Apple has seeded developers with a beta of an upcoming OS release, by far. Much about Mac OS X 10.8 is still being built and debated. We certainly haven’t even seen all of its features yet. I suspect that many of its features won’t be shown until Certain As-Yet Unannounced Products And Services are released.

My first reaction to a new OS is as a user, not a technology columnist. Mountain Lion looks like great stuff. I see plenty of features that will make my work simpler and I expect that 10.8 will be even safer to run than 10.7.

Moreover, Mountain Lion increases the value of my iPad and my iPhone, thanks to 10.8’s expanded iCloud features the latest “Freshly-Baked In iOS’ Brick-Lined Ovens” apps and functions to cross over to the Mac.

I’ve always said that Apple has only one product: its whole product line. You might not buy the entire Cupertino Action Playset in a single trip to the Apple Store, but inevitably you’ll realize that as much as you love Cowboy Mike, he’s that much more awesome with Rigel The Miracle Horse.

Still, I have to be honest and say that I’m feeling a twinge of concern along with this nodding approval of everything I’ve seen. Reminders, Notes, Sharing Sheets, Notifications . . . I like their Mountain Lion implementations. But mostly because they’re already so utterly familiar to me.

Pixel for pixel! They’re practically identical to their iPad editions.

The iPad was successful in part because Apple’s engineers built software specifically around that peculiar shape and that peculiar input method, and they never lost sight of the fact that people interact with tablets and notebooks differently. Remember that Windows tablets failed due to their designers’ presumption that the only difference between the two devices is that the tablet user clicks with a finger instead of with a mouse. Wrong!

We hold this truth to be self-evident. So it worries my that Apple has just done a copy-paste of these user interfaces. Does the MacOS version of Notes take advantage of the fact that my iMac has a much larger screen? That my primary interface is a keyboard, and I try to avoid taking my hands off of it if I can? Does this app click into the mindset of someone who sat down in this chair three hours ago with a wide portfolio of goals and an immersive mental focus on finishing a project?

Is this really the optimal design?

Is this the best Reminders app possible?

Or . . . did Apple just think “Port over the iPad app; it’ll work on anything”?

Hmm.

Apple chose a simple and natural way to express Documents In The Cloud to the user. Standard Open/Save dialog. One view: classic Finder. Second view: your iCloud documents.

But what’s Apple doing to improve the Finder? Its basic navigation and organizational features haven’t changed much since 10.1. That was more than ten years ago. Instead of clicking through directory hierarchies, why can’t I type (or even say) “The Pages file I was working on earlier this week . . . the one about the Panasonic camera”?

The core competencies needed to parse that sentence and connect it to the right file in the right folder are all here. Why am I still drilling through folders?

Why is the Documents In The Cloud interface optimized for such a small collection of files? I suspect it’s because users are more likely to rely on cloud storage just for those dozen or three files that they’re working with on a daily or a weekly basis. But I worry that this design could be an early sign that Apple might be steering Mac OS away from people like me and are optimizing the experience for folks who tend to operate with just dozens of files on a 64-gigabyte solid-state drive. Users who don’t put so many demands on a computer and don’t expect it to do everything.

What exactly am I worried about here?

Hell if I know. I’m concerned that we’re seeing a lot of “back to the Mac” features that made the Mac more like a limited iOS device, but we’re not seeing anything go through that particular pipe in the opposite direction. Why isn’t Apple making the iPad and the iPhone more flexible and giving users more control?

A week or two ago I suggested on my blog that maybe Apple should allow the user to define the behavior of the iPhone’s Mute slider, via a few switches in the General Settings panel. Oh, the howls of agony! A user-configurable option that would only be visible to people who actively looked for it would ruin the elegance and simplicity of the iPhone!

So I worry about the danger — real or imagined — of the Mac getting dumbed down by iOS philosophies. Will it continue to be a real computer that can do damned-near anything? Or will Mac OS 11 aggressively transition the Mac towards a boutique operating system that only does what most users need it to do?

I believe that a desktop OS should be a platform of zero limitations and infinite possibilities. Sometimes, that inevitably results in a computer that’s more complicated to operate than an electric golf cart but isn’t that an acceptable tradeoff?

“A computer shouldn’t be forced to address every edge-case scenario,” comes a popular argument. Fair enough and a valid warning. But remember that “I want to live-edit documents that live on a server instead of my local hard drive” was once an edge case scenario, as “I need a computer that operates like a tablet.” Now, it’s the norm.

Why stifle in the name of ideology, when you can nurture?

Hmph.

Aw, don’t listen to me. I’m just grumpy because I had to cancel my dinner plans.

(Well, listen to me a little, anyway.)

What next?

2012 could prove to be one of the most interesting showdowns of ideologies in the history of computing. With Mountain Lion, Apple’s underscoring the point they made with Lion last year: a mobile device should run a mobile OS and a desktop/notebook should run a desktop OS . . . but there should be a pipeline of ideas between the two. That pipeline has been unidirectional so far, but maybe that’s the natural consequence when one OS is so much fresher than the other.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is backing the idea of a single OS that articulates itself differently on different devices. Why should anybody board a plane with a notebook and a tablet? Why not create a single OS with the agility to excel no matter how you’re using the device?

And an interesting new class of devices is emerging via Android. Tablets that bring none of the baggage of a legacy desktop app like Windows, and which want to be thought of as a standalone device that never needs the support of a notebook or desktop tether. A device like ASUS’ Transformer Prime is an interesting alternative view of the Ultrabook concept. If you throw away all expectations of running Windows, you just might have solved 75 percent percent of your problems.

I describe Android — with more respect than it would appear — as the mobile OS that can’t shoot straight. But the thing about people who keep shooting and shooting is that eventually, they do tend to hit what they didn’t know they should have been aiming for all along. Don’t count them out.

Not one of these ideas is inherently right or wrong. And “leadership” is often just another word for “I set up my fruit stand at the spot where I supposed the people were going to be.”

It’s very early in the year. The dice tumble down the felt as the players grip the rail.



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