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Mountain Lion is Apple’s new middle ground

A customer looks new OS X MountaLioperating system an Apple store Palo AlCalif. Wednesday July 25 2012. Apple Inc. released

A customer looks at the new OS X Mountain Lion operating system at an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif., Wednesday, July 25, 2012. Apple Inc. released its new operating system for Mac computers on Wednesday, with features borrowed from mobile devices and a tighter integration with online file storage. Dubbed Mountain Lion, the new software narrows the gap between the PC and phone software packages, making Mac personal computers work more like iPhones and iPads. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

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Updated: September 1, 2012 6:16AM

Yes, of course you should upgrade your Mac to OS 10.8, (aka “Mountain Lion”). You should wait a couple of weeks before upgrading if you have only one Mac, or if you’re in the middle of a do-or-die project. But that’s just good practice; it’s not a comment about the features or stability of the latest edition of Apple’s desktop OS.

I mean, why not? It’s easy to install (one click to purchase it through the App Store, and then you just click a couple of “OK”’s before going out for an hour or two while the installer does its work. And at twenty bucks, it’s cheap-as-free. Apple’s consistent message since they began their annual schedule of OS updates is that “these aren’t optional.” They’ve given people almost no excuse. If you have a compatible Mac (all Macs made in 2009 or later, and many made as early as mid 2007) you’ll be running 10.8 soon. Because you don’t install it this week, you’ll do it sometime in the coming six months, when an app you count on begins to require it.

So this column -- part two of a three part discussion -- isn’t a “should you or shouldn’t you?” piece. Instead, it’s a whip-around of key features and opinions.

With MacOS 10.7 (“Lion”), the overall theme was “Back To The Mac.” Apple was taking some of the lessons they learned while developing and maturing the iPad and iPhone and bringing them to the desktop. Most of these features snapped in like Legos. If you liked the new iPad-style app launcher, fab! If you didn’t? It was just an icon in your Dock that you could ignore. Ditto for multitouch gestures and most of the other iOS-style features.

With 10.8, iOS sends its roots deeply into the Mac experience. The end result isn’t a Mac that feels like an iPad. It’s a PC in which your data and your user experience flow between desktop and mobile devices freely and easily.

I talked about iCloud document syncing in Part 1 of my Mountain Lion coverage. To that, I can only add that it’s easy to understate how significant iCloud is to Apple’s vision for the future. iCloud seems so deceptively familiar, after all. It’s like Dropbox, right? Syncs files across all kinds of different hardware, yeah? Got it.

But document syncing, as well as the syncing of address books, music playlists, and photo albums, are just the most obvious articulations of a powerful basic concept: all of your data together in a single enormous library. A data collective that articulates itself through whatever device you have at hand, in whatever way that’s relevant to what you’re doing at this particular moment. Apple, as a cultural entity, tries to identify processes where lots of friction is involved. Then they dispatch engineers to that spot, armed with Ghostbusters-style grease guns. iCloud makes perfect sense in a world where where each person splits their time and their view of the world across multiple devices. By ensuring that the “god’s eye” view of your personal finances just happens to be on your iPhone when you’re at the boat show, or that the information that your iOS heartrate monitor collected during your bike ride is available to your desktop fitness app, iCloud could erase some of the biggest annoyances of modern computing.

My second-favorite Mountain Lion feature? The new-to-Mac “Sharing” button. I never fully appreciated just how many of the functions I perform on my Mac involve taking this thing I’m looking at right here and sharing it with someone else. Not until I started using apps that had a button hardwired for that exact purpose.

Here’s a cool webpage; I’ll click the “Share” button in Safari’s browser window, and IM the link to a pal. When I’m done with this column, I’ll click a “Share” button and email it to my editor. Awesome; every time I use that button, it saves me an annoying step. I no longer need to hand-carry the URL, or the file, or the photo, or the whatsit to the machinery that will send it out. Another friction-filled process, mounted on rollerblades by Apple.

Apple’s wired a Share button everywhere you’d want to encounter one. Even a QuickLook file preview window is wired for it. Developers can implement and enhance this iOS-style button inside their apps any way they choose, to share any kind of data that seems appropriate.

And Sharing is a natural fit for 10.8’s system-wide integration of social networks. As in iOS, MacOS now stores and manages your Twitter credentials, and can provide Twitter services to any app that wants them without requiring the user to log in separately. Twitter works so intimately in Mountain Lion that it almost seems like an Apple-engineered social network.

Facebook integration is already in the hands of developers in beta form, and will be released as a free update later in the year. That’s going to be the real Win. Whether you like Facebook or not, it’s part of the fundamental communications infrastructure...and MacOS will be able to exploit it better than any other OS.

The Mac gets its own versions of iOS’ Notes and Reminders apps. I’m already a big fan of Reminders. Previous personal project management and to-do-list apps I’ve tried were all either too cute or too complicated for me to use them regularly. Reminders is bone-simple, and it syncs effortlessly to the desktop.

Notes is valuable chiefly for its syncing. Which, oddly, is done via a folder on an IMAP server instead of through iCloud proper. But it works, and its support of photos and rich text makes Notes a nice transport mechanism to get snippets of info between the computer on your desk and the one on your hand.

But oh, dear, yes: Notes reminds me that it’s time to banish faux stitched leather from the Mac a no matter where it scurries and hides. There was once a day when we didn’t even know what the word “skeuomorph” meant. In context, it means “an unnecessary design element in a digital tool that’s there solely to evoke the familiar elements of the same kind of tool in the physical world.” There was once also a day when “Kardashian” was just the vaguely-recalled name of one of the lawyers in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Those were great, great times, weren’t they?

Onward. Out goes iChat. In comes Messages, which delivers instant messaging under the same mandate as almost everything else in 10.8: deliver a transparent experience for a user who’s constantly moving between iOS and MacOS devices. When Messages works, I can indeed start a chat with a friend on my Mac, and then continue it later on with my iPhone. But I’ve rarely seen that kind of seamless experience over the past few months. The iMessage service (the transport system underneath Messages) uses several different mechanisms for “finding” you. If iMessage identifies you by your phone number on your iPhone, and by your AppleID on your MacBook, and by your AppleID with a different email alias on your iMac...iMessage can’t follow you from one device to the other. Apple tells me that they’ll be addressing this problem later in the year.

Mountain Lion delivers iOS-style dropdown alerts. Which is to say (he said, adjusting his hat to a snarkish angle) that it delivers Android-style dropdown alerts.

No, no, actually, the new system is strong enhancement. Every message or alert that the OS or any other app needs to communicate is passed to you through the Notification Center. You’ll find it on the rightmost edge of the menubar, next to Spotlight. There’s no longer any mystery about what’s been going on while you were wasting your attention on your children; it’s all there, in a list. A System Preferences panel allows you to prioritize notifications by app. Incoming Twitter direct messages can land like a butterfly in the list, attracting little attention,. Meanwhile, an app that warns you of a chemical fire in the kids’ bedroom gets a full in-your-face alert that doesn’t go away until you dismiss it, or until the advancing wall of white-hot magnesium fire melts the screen.

iOS-style dictation: tap the Function key twice and speak. 10.8 inserts it as text. It works about as well as it does in iOS. Hint: I believe “the amount of time you spend watching those three dots cycle over and over before you realize that this is going to be one of those times when text-to-speech ultimately shakes its head and pastes nothing in” should be an ISO unit of measurement.

iOS-style screen and audio mirroring: a killer feature and worth the $20 Mountain Lion upgrade fee all by itself. It couldn’t be simpler. A screen connected to an Apple TV becomes an external screen that mirrors your Mac’s. Push a button to turn it on, push it again to turn it off.

It’s a real rush. As I write this, I’m watching the BBC live feed of the Olympics, streaming down to the Apple TV in my living room via a web browser on a MacBook in my bedroom. And this feature is going to sell a lot of Apple TVs for a lot of conference rooms. No cords, no dongles...just simple, wireless video and audio. I might buy an AppleTV just to travel with.

But ach, if only this feature were supported by more Macs. It requires a CPU with onboard video codecs, which means that most Macs made before summer of 2011 are limited to sharing just audio.

The same kind of anti-egalitarianism slightly mutes my excitement about Power Nap. An iOS device “micro wakes” on a regular schedule during sleep, to see if it needs to do any important housekeeping. Power Nap allows some modern MacBooks to do the same kind of thing. New Mail messages are downloaded; changes to iCloud documents, calendars, contacts, and reminders are synced down and kept current. These things and more can take place even while your Mac is asleep and the screen to your MacBook is shut. It also means, of course, that Find My Mac will work even if the eggsucking weasel who stole your MacBook Air isn’t actually using the machine.

Your MacBook doesn’t light up or make a peep while this is in progress. You wake it up, and hey, cool...everything’s updated. If you’re connected to wall AC, it’ll also do power-intensive things like Time Machine backups and software updates. If you’re on battery and the charge level is at 30% or less, Power Nap won’t run at all.

It also won’t run unless you’re using a mid-2011 or later MacBook Air or Retina MacBook. It makes sense that this kind of feature wouldn’t work on a hard drive-based MacBook, but I wish it could have been extended to some of the earlier adopters. It’s rough to have to tell someone “It’s a great feature, but the MacBook you bought last year can’t do that.”

The major under-the-hood features of Mountain Lion address the problems of keeping a popular operating system secure. Apple’s taken broad steps, here. Gatekeeper helps you to keep malware off of your machine choosing one of three levels of trust for third-party apps. For maximum safety and distrust, allow only apps that have been vetted and installed through Apple’s own App Store. For minimum safety and cynicism about human nature, allow anything to run no matter where you got it from (which is how things work in 10.7).

Apple’s created a new middle ground. The default security in 10.8 is to allow apps that have been downloaded through the App Store or ones that have been “signed.” Developers who don’t wish to sell their apps through the App Store can choose to register themselves with Apple, agree to the developer program agreement, and then apply a unique digital signature to their apps. It allows Apple a measure of control over outside software. If the signed app proves to be malicious, or if it’s just so badly written that it causes damage, Apple can pull that signature and prevent the app from executing. They also know the identity of the company that produced that bucket of lark vomit in the first place.

Unlike an antivirus kit on a Windows machine, Gatekeeper isn’t an active defense against malware. It doesn’t even check to make sure that an existing app hasn’t been tampered with (Gatekeeper screening happens during the first launch of the app). But it’s probably an appropriate response to the minimal threats that are out there for Mac users.

Other, subtle security and privacy touches will have a more direct impact. For instance, any access of your address book is preceded by an OS warning and an opportunity to block that action. In recent months, users have often been stung by the revelation that a social network decided to “pre-cache” (ho ho) a feature by downloading your personal information and address book without asking first. In 10.8, that’s controlled by the OS.

Which has led to a lot of scary interactions. Even when an app tries to do something rather harmless (like locate your address book) a big alert pops up warning you that this calculator app wants to download all 829 of your contacts and sell them to Malaysian phone sex marketers. We’ll see fewer of these in the future, as developers learn how to work with the new security features.

Mountain Lion is notable for the things that Apple mostly left alone. It seems as though I complain about Finder stagnation every year. Well, it’s the shag carpeting of the Mac operating system. It doesn’t matter how modern and elegant the rest of the furnishings are...burnt orange is sooooOOOOooooo over.

But (through iCloud document syncing) Apple has tipped its plans for a major overhaul to the whole document structure. I no longer doubt that we’ll see a major shakeup of the Finder soon, as its role becomes harder to define.

I spend a huge chunk of my day in Safari, however, and I’m starting to get impatient for a more usable web browser. Safari got some new paint and lampshades and that’s it. There’s a unified search/address bar. You can keep certain webpages open across all of your desktop and mobile Safari apps via iCloud. And I rather enjoy paging through the open taps within a window via multitouch.

But I’m amazed that Apple hasn’t identified the major source of friction in all web browsers: window and tab management. By the middle of the week, I have dozens of Safari windows and many of them have multiple tabs. Most of these pages are running scripts. Is it any wonder that I often need to spend a good twenty to thirty minutes scrutinizing and closing and bookmarking pages, just to keep the spinning beachball at bay for thirty damn seconds?

A browser can do so much better. Safari could do simple things like tell me “Hey, I notice that is already open in another tab of another window. Would you like me to just take you there and refresh it, instead of opening another instance?” It could even just let me define a hard limit for open webpages. When I tried to open my eleventh window, it would shake its head and put up a gallery that made it easy to spot the pages I no longer need.

Et cetera. Safari needs a kick in the pants and Mountain Lion had bigger fish to fry, alas.

So go ahead and install Mountain Lion. The downsides are nonexistent (apart from the usual outlying cases of an important third-party app that needs an update) and the upsides are considerable.

The only real concern I have about Mountain Lion is also its greatest feature. No OS works so well with tablets, phones, and other desktops. So long as they’re all made by Apple, and they’re using software that Apple has either written or approved. Is that going to continue to be a great feature in a world in which the greatest phone in the world or the greatest tablet in the world -- from the perspective of a specific user -- isn’t made by Apple?

Stay tuned for Part Three.

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