PC & Servers

Apple OS X Mountain Lion: 11 Highlights

OS X and iOS continue to converge. Will they be one some day?
Apple on Thursday offered a preview of OS X Mountain Lion, the next revision of its desktop operating system. Though closely related by name to the company's current Mac operating system, OS X Lion, the software's lineage can be traced to Apple's mobile operating system, iOS, almost as much as it can to previous Apple code named for big cats.

Apple SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller heralded the approach of OS X Mountain Lion by noting that Mac sales have been growing faster than PC sales for 23 straight quarters.

Yet, Apple has dropped "Mac" from its naming conventions. Its last desktop operating system was "Mac OS X Lion" in Apple's press material. Its next one is just "OS X Mountain Lion" and the webpage for Mac OS Lion has been stripped of its "Mac" modifier. Like Apple's shift five years ago from "Apple Computer Inc." to simply "Apple Inc.," small details say a lot about Apple's focus.

Apple's 2007 corporate name change marked the end of the PC era and the beginning of the mobile era. The de-emphasis of Apple's 28-year-old Macintosh brand should be read as a similar sign. Apple began as a maker of computers and has become a maker of devices and appliances that incorporate computers.

Developers who create OS X and iOS apps appear to appreciate what Apple is trying to do.

"Overall, I like what I see," said developer Andy Finnell, who runs app development company Fortunate Bear, in an email. "Almost all of the new features are iOS features they're bringing to the Mac. I do think the convergence between iOS and Mac OS X is inevitable. With iOS Apple had the chance to throw a lot of legacy stuff away, so I think it more closely approximates Apple's ideals. It makes sense that they're trying to bring the Mac in line with that ideal, as well as have their two operating systems have a similar set of apps. I do notice that at this point they're just porting the iOS apps over, and not adding any new functionality, particularly with Notes and Reminders."

[ Apple is working to convince people that it remains committed to fair labor practices. Read Apple CEO: 'We Care About Every Worker'. ]

Jeff LaMarche, a veteran Mac developer for Martian Craft and author of Mac programming books, said in an email that the most interesting aspects of OS X Mountain Lion are covered by Apple's pre-release software NDA. But he observed that the security steps Apple is taking strike a good balance between developer freedom and user protection.

LaMarche sees Apple's operating systems gaining mutual benefits, as ideas from one platform get adopted on the other. "Although, from a UI perspective, it does seem like Mac OS X is moving toward iOS more than the other way around, looking at the SDK release notes for the past several releases, it really has been a two-way street," he said. "For example, Grand Central Dispatch (an SDK to make it easier for developers to spread work over multiple computing cores) was on the Mac OS X several releases before it came to iOS."

LaMarche is skeptical that Mac OS and iOS will converge any time soon because the priorities of each remain too different. "Power consumption and battery life, for example, are much higher priority when making design decisions for iOS, while concurrency and multitasking is a much higher priority on Mac OS X, since all Macs going back several years have multi-core CPUs," he said. "Only the most recent iOS devices have dual-core CPUs. They are important factors on both platforms, but they're prioritized differently because of the different ways the apps are used."

OS X Mountain Lion has more than 100 new features, Apple says. But the company has highlighted 11 that matter most.

Apple is doing away with its OS X iChat applicaton and replacing it with Messages, a variant of its multi-protocol text and video chat app from iOS, iMessages. The result will be a more consistent user experience across Apple's mobile and desktop products. Messages is designed to provide a free communication mechanism across Apple devices, but it will also be able to communicate with other messaging apps, specifically AIM, Jabber, Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk.

Notification Center
Just like the Notification Center in iOS 5, OS X Notification Center relies on a system-wide API for displaying alerts, in a drop-down menu list or as banners that appear and disappear quickly, supposedly so they're less intrusive.

Finnell observed that it looks like Growl, a third-party notification system, "just got sherlocked." The Urban Dictionary defines "sherlocked" thus: "to have developed a product and just started shipping it, only to have Apple come along and provide exactly the same functionality in a system update. It happened to Karelia Software twice. Once with Sherlock and again with iWeb."

Share Sheets
Apple is standardizing the way content is shared from within OS X apps by including a drop-down menu with a list of sharing destinations, like Flickr or Twitter. Apple could have played kingmaker here and included only those services it doesn't see as competitors. But Share Sheets will support user-defined destinations. It remains to be seen, however, how extensively developers will be able to configure Share Sheets for their apps.

Twitter's API was built into iOS and now it's going into OS X. Mac users will be able to see tweets and send them without leaving the current app in use. Given Apple's affinity for Twitter, it's surprising that Apple hasn't used some of its almost $100 billion pile of cash to buy the messaging company.

Perhaps the most significant feature in OS X Mountain Lion, Gatekeeper is sure to stir up controversy. It's a security mechanism that gives the user the option to disallow the installation of apps from unaccredited developers. It's intended for apps distributed outside of Apple's Mac App Store, where Apple already watches out for misbehaving or malicious apps. Apple is establishing a program called Developer ID by which developers will digitally sign their OS X apps, just as they do when developing iOS apps. If Apple decides that an accredited developer's app violates its requirements, the company can disable all apps associated with the developer's digital ID. While this has obvious security benefits, it is also likely to stigmatize developers not participating in Apple's ID program. If software development up until now can be likened to the lawless Wild West, Apple can be said to be fencing the frontier.

"Gatekeeper is the one worrisome thing to me as a developer," observed Finnell. "From a user's standpoint, I totally get it. Gatekeeper allows them to specify which apps they allow to run: Mac App Store apps only, Mac App Store plus 'identified developers' signed apps, or anything. I think its inevitable that it will eventually default to, if not demand, Mac App Store only apps. There are certain kinds of apps that the App Store just doesn't allow, so removing the ability to install and run them is troubling."

OS X Mountain Lion will come with iCloud built in, enabling users to access their documents across any iOS or OS X device. That's sure to further increase adoption of a service that already has some 100 million users only four months after launch.

The Reminders app from iOS will be making an appearance in OS X Mountain Lion and will make reminder items available through iCloud. Score one for cross-device consistency. Third-party developers will have to work even harder to make their reminder apps competitive, given Apple's home field advantage.

Apple's iOS Notes app is also making its way to OS X Mountain Lion. Like Reminders, it will benefit from iCloud integration. Developers take note: You should be writing apps for the cloud rather than for specific platforms.

Game Center
Yet another import from iOS, Game Center brings Apple's one successful social network to a broader audience. Gaming on the Mac has traditionally been an afterthought. But perhaps some of the success of iOS as an entertainment platform will rub off on OS X.

AirPlay Mirroring
AirPlay in iOS 5 allows iPad users to stream movies or music to an HDTV or AirPlay-enabled speakers through Apple TV. AirPlay in OS X Mountain Lion brings the same capabilities to Macs.

China Features
Just as OS X Mountain Lion has integrated Twitter, Mac users in China will be able to connect Mail, Contacts, and Calendar with popular Chinese services like QQ, 163, and 126. Apple has also made Baidu a built-in option in Safari. (Google, you're on notice.)

Apple says that OS X Mountain Lion will ship in late summer. In the meantime, Apple developers can download a preview version to explore the new APIs.