Apple surprised everyone by announcing OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion last week, with a developer preview available immediately and a full release coming in the summer. The announcement has been discussed ad nauseam to this point, but I wanted to talk about what I am excited about.
Apple released iOS 5 in October, which included a modified Messages application that supported the new iMessages system, which in-turn would allow all iOS devices to communicate via the internet instead of the more standard SMS system. The natural assumption was that a Mac client would quickly follow. Although it seems like it has been years, only four months later we finally have it. One of the marquee features of OS X 10.8 is a re-branding of iChat as Messages, which seems to include everything iChat did, but also the ability to communicate with the iMessages protocol. This means that OS X and iOS users can communicate now, all using the same platform.
This is gold. Nothing is more annoying that sitting in front of a computer, having the iPhone buzz and having no way to reply without pulling out the iPhone, unlocking it and typing out a reply on the on-screen keyboard, when it seems like it would be so easy to have a way to reply from the Mac. This solution doesn’t solve all, since it doesn’t make up for SMS messages from non-iOS users, but for a lot of people, it will apply in most cases.
The beta version of the Mac app was released last week, and I have been using it. It works as advertised and has been extremely useful so far. I do have some concerns though, and even though I know this is a beta, Apple doesn’t have a history of making big changes to the final product. In this particular case, I am worried they won’t, and what we see is what we get. First off, it seems like this functionality was shoehorned into iChat as opposed to building a new client from the ground up. This can be seen in the fact that the old buddy list exists as it used to, but iMessages sits in this “tabbed” interface. There is no way to create a “buddy list” for iMessages contacts. Instead they are added as needed to the tabbed interface. It’s kind of clunky at the moment. At least a way to denote “favorites” without having to leave them in a tab all the time.
There is also the issue of every iOS device buzzing with each incoming message. If a Mac, iPhone and iPad are all next to each other, each message that arrives comes to all devices. The notifications on these devices are marked as read when the messages on read on a single device, so at least there is that. But nothing is more annoying or distracting that having multiple devices buzz with the same message. I suppose anyone who has constant e-mail checking on could run into a similar problem, but there has to be a solution to this.
There need to be improvements made, but Apple is on the right track. This fills the void created when iMessages was released on iOS and gives a convenient way for Apple users to stay in contact across multiple devices.
Apple solved the longstanding issue iOS users’ had with push notifications when they added Notification Center in version 5. Third-party app Growl has always filled this niche on the Mac, but now Apple has finally come up with a solution of their own. It seems the implementation is pulled right out of iOS, which I suppose makes sense. The fact that system is unified, and developers know any user of 10.8 will have it, likely means that more apps will take advantage of it. But in the multi-app environment of the Mac, notifications aren’t nearly as useful. Because multiple windows can be opened at once, and the Dock and Menubar provide ways to keep tabs on things, notifications help in some cases, but not nearly as many as on iOS. Thus far, the biggest impact seems to be the addition of notifications for application updates in the App Store. Presently the App Store has to opened to check for updates, which causes long gaps between developers updating, and users updating because people just don’t think about. I personally constantly forget to do this.
At the moment I only use Growl for a few things: instant messaging, Twitter replies/DMs and a couple other random “[task] complete”((FTP uploads, Dropbox syncing, etc.)) notifications. The App Store thing is enough to make me excited though.
I have mostly ignored AirPlay because it hasn’t fit anywhere in my workflow. Right now an Apple TV or Airport Express are the only place things can be streamed to. Since I have neither I have never even tried it. The sources could only be iOS devices, until now. Starting in 10.8 Apple is going to allow Macs to be used as source devices, meaning that a person could mirror their entire computer wirelessly to an Apple TV. This means that the content is longer restricted strictly to iOS apps and iTunes content.
This is potentially a huge selling point to Mac media center aficionados. I have a Mac Mini that I use as a media center right now, but it’s restricted to one room/TV. I prefer the Mac Mini because it can do anything, as opposed to just certain Apple TV content. With AirPlay Mirroring on the Mac, it means that I could potentially add a couple more Apple TVs to my house and then essentially access the media center in any room. Obviously I can only stream to one place at a time this way, but it’s still a much cheaper “complete” solution as opposed to buying more Mac Minis.
An aside: I am not really all that interested in getting into a discussion about a potential Apple television, but I think this addition would make a lot of sense moving in that direction.
Apple has implemented some small changes to Safari. They adopted a Chrome-style “omnibar” that allows search terms and URLs to be typed into the same box. This feature started as a turn-off for me in Chrome, but has grown on me during my sporadic time in the browser. I think it will be a good addition that should save a ton of extra keystrokes over time. This also will likely be enough to draw some Chrome users back to Safari.
Supposedly the Reader button has been made more prominent and tabs will be sync-able across browsers. But it’s unclear if this is all tabs or just certain tabs. The ability to sync only certain tabs to Macs and also iOS is a killer feature. All or nothing wouldn’t be as useful, but at least it’s something.
The most important feature in 10.8 is very likely Gatekeeper, which will allow users to control what software can be run on their machine. The three options, in layman’s terms, seem to be “App Store only”, “App Store plus developers with a signed certificate from Apple” and “anything and everything.” There are a lot of ways to look at this. First and foremost, this further brings the iOS “closed” atmosphere to OS X. The default setting is App Store and signed apps only, which means that without user intervention, nothing will be run on the user’s Mac without it being something Apple is at least aware of. Since most users probably don’t change a lot of settings anyway, it’s unlikely most of them will change this without someone they know telling them to. This adds a bit more security to OS X. It also appeases power users who have long been weary of Apple locking down OS X.
The optimist in me says that Apple wants to keep all users happy instead of doing exclusively what is best for the masses. The pessimist in me says that this is the next step towards eventually banning all non-App Store apps. 2012 is way too soon to lock out all apps, but I still believe it’s coming. I suspect that 10.9 or 10.10 will lock things down under the guise of “98% of all apps that are installed come from the App Store anyway”. Until then though, this is the best of both worlds.
A lot of the focus on Mountain Lion has on the way the message was delivered to press (one-on-one briefings) and then published via a lifted embargo, as opposed to having a dedicated press event. John Gruber had an interesting take on this:
My gut feeling though, is this. Apple didn’t want to hold an event to announce Mountain Lion because those press events are precious. They just used one for the iBooks/education thing, and they’re almost certainly on the cusp of holding a major one for the iPad. They don’t want to wait to release the Mountain Lion preview because they want to give Mac developers months of time to adopt new APIs and to help Apple shake out bugs. So: an announcement without an event. But they don’t want Mountain Lion to go unheralded. They are keenly aware that many observers suspect or at least worry that the Mac is on the wane, relegated to the sideline in favor of the new and sensationally popular iPad.
I think he’s on the right track, but I think there’s more to it than that. Apple announcement hype has become bigger than the event themselves. The insanely stupid backlash around the last iPhone event, which was almost exclusively because the device was called “4S” instead of “5″ had to leave a bitter taste in Apple’s mouth. Of course they sold more than ever and laughed all the way to the bank, but that backlash was there. At this point everyone is expecting the iPad 3 any day now. If Apple had scheduled an event for February and not announced a new iPad, I expect the backlash would have been there again.
Overall, the fact that Apple is going to start releasing iterations of OS X every year is both good and exciting. As much as I love my iPhone and iPad, I am still a “Mac guy”. I am glad to see that Apple is trying to actively show that the Mac is not “dead” and I look forward to the next big cat release.