Apple did a funny thing this week. They announced a new desktop operating system with little fanfare and took the entire internet by surprise. For as secretive as Apple try to be, hiding new phones in plain sight where no one would think to look, the internet has enough rumors about them that we practically always know what they're going to announce before they do, even if some of those predictions are a year off (I’m looking at you iPhone 5). And yet, with the announcement of Mountain Lion, the internet knew nothing. I came home from work having not looked at the news all day and just discovered that it had been announced.
Perhaps the reason why the internet hadn’t even gotten around to making up features for Apple’s next OS release is because Lion only came out seven months ago. Since 2003 OS X has been on a two year release cycle (in stark contrast to Microsoft’s “when we get round to it” cycle), but Apple seems keen to break this with Mountain Lion, moving to a yearly release cycle that matches their mobile OS. This could be either good or bad really. Yearly updates mean we get more frequent feature updates, but they could just be trying to get you to pay for an upgrade more often and releases could become more iterative in nature.
Like Lion, Mountain Lion is all about bringing iOS features to the desktop, but hopefully this time with more success. When Lion brought yet another method of launching apps to OS X that looked like iOS’s springboard we all rolled our eyes just a little. Despite already having the dock, stacks, spotlight and the finder, obviously the feature the Mac was missing was iOS’s worst part.
Mountain Lion brings some great features of iOS to the desktop, such as AirPlay mirroring to an Apple TV and a unified notification center. Having a centralised place to see a list of alerts and messages you received while you were away from the computer seems like an obvious omission from OS X, and anyone who has ever tried to explain to their parents how to connect a laptop to a big screen will appreciate the simplicity of AirPlay.
With this release Apple is also trying to make the OS make more sense. Currently notes you have syncing in iCloud end up (for no apparent reason) in your e-mail inbox and reminders appear in iCal as to dos. In Mountain Lion these have been split out into separate apps which make much more sense. Speaking of iCloud, it’s being integrated more deeply at the OS level, allowing you to save and open iCloud documents in Pages or TextEdit for example.
I wish they had gone much further with this however. While notes in Mail and reminders in iCal were minor grumbles, everyone has complained about the monstrosity of iTunes for years. It’s understandable how it happened, but iTunes as an app no longer makes sense. iTunes should go back to being a media player and anything not related to that should be its own thing, such as iOS app purchasing/management and iBooks. In fact, splitting iBooks into its own app would be the perfect opportunity to introduce a Mac reader for iBooks, which is bizarrely absent.
The most obvious feature that should be torn out of iTunes is iPad and iPhone syncing. It’s there because that’s where you put music on an iPod, but now that iDevices are grown up and WiFi syncing means you need to leave iTunes open all the time, device syncing should become a system level feature.
Finally one of Mountain Lion’s curious new additions is Gatekeeper, a security control that by default blocks the installation of apps from the internet that aren’t signed by an Apple certificate. Getting a certificate doesn’t require you to get into the app store, but it does require you to pay the developer licensee fee. The feature can be turned off (or made more vigilant) and I don’t have anything fundamentally against it as it protects against malware and still allows un-approved apps, but the direction we are going in concerns me. In a couple more versions of OS X I could easily see the “anywhere” option quietly disappear.
But maybe that’s just my tinfoil hat talking.
Overall I look forward to this upgrade, but I certainly hope that next years upgrade isn’t just another iOS catch up and they invest time in genuinely developing new features for the Mac.