Apple’s OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion: The Mac Gets Even More iPad-Like

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In October of 2010, Apple held a media briefing at its Cupertino campus. It called the event Back to the Mac, and one of the key pieces of news was the first public showing of OS X 10.7 Lion, an upgrade to its Mac operating system. Lion was the first version of OS X to reflect the influence of iOS, the software on the iPhone and iPad: It brought a bunch of iOS features “back to the Mac,” including an App Store, a full-screen mode, and FaceTime video chat.

It was a big idea. Too big, it turns out, to fit into one upgrade.

Today, Apple is unveiling OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, its first major update to the Mac’s software since Lion. As its name suggests, it feels like a continuation of Lion–one that borrows even more features from iOS. It also ties Apple’s two operating systems more tightly together through iCloud, Apple’s service for storing documents and other data on the Net. The overall emphasis on iOS influence and iCloud integration is so overwhelming that Apple could have called this upgrade “Lion Part II” or “Lion iCloud Edition.”

(MORE: With OS X Lion, Apple’s Macs Enter the iPad Era)

As usual with new operating systems, Mountain Lion is getting its first wave of publicity long before it’s ready for consumers to buy. Apple is spilling the beans now because it’s releasing a preview version for developers today. It says it plans to finish the software by the summer, which would let it release the update–via its Mac App Store–roughly a year after Lion shipped in July 2011. That’s a rapid turn-around time by operating-system standards: Lion appeared 23 months after its predecessor, Snow Leopard.

Apple recently briefed me on the new features and loaned me a MacBook Air loaded with a beta version of Mountain Lion. I’ve been test-driving for the past week. It’s a tad glitchy and is missing some features, so it’s too early to render a decisive verdict. But it works well enough that I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the fully-baked version later this year.

The first big thing you’ll notice about Mountain Lion is–well, it’s the fact that you probably won’t instantly notice anything big. Despite the profusion of new features borrowed from iOS, Apple has left the venerable basics of OS X’s user interface pretty much alone, including the desktop, the Dock and windows.  (It’s a strikingly different approach from Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8, which demotes the classic Windows look and feel in favor of a radical new one based on Windows Phone 7’s Metro interface.)

Dig into Apple’s upgrade, however, and you’ll discover new signs of iOS’s influence lurking everywhere.

None of them are more obvious than Notification Center, a consistent, centralized mechanism for calling your attention to things going on in applications other than the one you’re using. A notification can pop up momentarily in the upper right-hand corner of the screen to remind you about a meeting scheduled in your calendar, for instance, or to alert you to an incoming e-mail or instant message. Swipe with two fingers along the touchpad’s right edge, and you can summon a scrolling list of all the notifications that have been displayed recently. Except for the fact that everything sits on the right hand of the display rather than the top, it’s all very much like the notification system that Apple introduced in iOS5. And it should be particularly useful when you’re working in a program’s full-screen mode and don’t want to leave it in order to keep tabs on other apps.

Now, centralized notifications in OS X aren’t a wholly new idea: Many third-party OS X apps already use an excellent open-source system called Growl. Apple’s take on the concept is slicker than Growl, though, and if it ends up being supported by more programs, it’ll be an even bigger boon.

From the moment that Apple announced the first iPhone in 2007, I assumed that it would eventually bring iChat, the Mac’s instant-messaging software, to the iPhone. It still hasn’t. But with Mountain Lion it achieves a similar effect by replacing iChat with Messages, the iPhone/iPad messaging app that debuted in iOS 5. And you don’t need to wait for Mountain Lion’s general availability to try it out: Apple has already released a public beta for Lion.

(MORE: Apple iOS 5)

Like iChat, OS X’s Messages works on the AIM, Yahoo, and Google Talk  networks, so you can send messages to pals the same way you always did. But if your friends have a Mac, an iPhone or an iPad, you can send them iMessages–Apple’s free, industrial-strength text messages which support group messaging, photos and videos.

iMessages don’t involve traditional buddy lists: You just begin typing the recipient’s name, and Messages finds it among your OS X contacts. If the person you’re messaging has a Mac, an iPhone and an iPad, the iMessage will show up on all of them. You or your friend can even begin a conversation via Messages on one device, then switch to a different one in mid-discussion.

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Another Mountain Lion feature, Documents in the Cloud, introduces something that you might guess Macs would already have: The ability to use iCloud to seamlessly share files with iOS devices in such cross-platform apps as Apple’s Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

Until now, it was easy to use iCloud to move documents you created on an iPhone or iPad onto a Mac, but reversing the process required you to futz with iTunes or upload files to Apple’s service. Documents in the Cloud will eliminate the futzing and manual uploading: You’ll be able to get to all your documents in one place on any Mac or iOS device, and the edits you make will be reflected everywhere. (The developer preview provides just a hint of all this: Right now, it works only with Preview and Text Edit, two OS X apps that aren’t even available for iOS.)

iCloud also powers two new OS X apps based on iOS ones, Reminders and Notes. Both give you exactly the features their names suggest, and both use iCloud to sync data with any iPhone, iPad or other Mac you happen to own. Neither program is exactly bursting with features, and third-party apps such as Simplenote and Remember the Milk already work across multiple devices. Still, it’s nice to see them as standard OS X equipment.

Game fans should also be pleased by the arrival of yet another iOS feature in OS X: Game Center. As on the iPhone and iPad, it lets you find folks to compete against and share your scores and achievements. Most tantalizingly, it will allow developers to create multi-player, cross-platform games. That opens up the possibility, for instance, of a racing game that doesn’t care whether drivers are using a Mac, an iPhone or an iPad.

In iOS 5, Apple built social plumbing directly into the operating system, and it did it in an interesting way: It integrated support for Twitter. (Twitter may have gotten the nod at least in part because of Apple’s reportedly prickly relationship with Facebook.) Mountain Lion adds similar Twitter-everywhere capabilities to OS X: Using a simple Tweet Sheet, you can tweet right from Safari, Preview, iPhoto and other programs.

Tweet Sheets are one flavor of Share Sheets, which let you share stuff by a variety of means within OS X programs.  The exact lineup of Share Sheets varies from app to app: In Photo Booth, for instance, they let you distribute your photographic creations using e-mail, Messages, Twitter, Flickr and OS X’s AirDrop wireless file-transfer utility.

AirPlay Mirroring, yet another Mountain Lion feature borrowed from iOS, isn’t working in the developer preview, but it looked especially nifty when Apple gave me a demo. It lets you wirelessly beam your Mac’s display, in 720p HD resolution, onto an HDTV or computer display equipped with Apple’s $99 Apple TV box. At home, this will be a convenient way to watch a movie from iTunes or play a game on the biggest screen in the house; at work, it’ll allow you to conduct a presentation without futzing with cables.

Products and technologies such as Intel’s Wireless Display and Veebeam already permit similar wireless transmission of a computer’s display to a TV. This is, however, the first time the concept has been built right into an operating system, and it should make Apple TV that much more appealing.

One major new feature in OS X 10.8, Gatekeeper, shows no iOS influence. It’s a set-it-and-forget-it option that lets you control what type of programs are allowed on your Mac. You can choose to allow only ones that Apple has vetted and distributed through the Mac App Store. You can permit both App Store software and programs which have been signed with a Developer ID, which indicates that the software in question hasn’t been tampered with and doesn’t carry any malware. (That’s the default setting.) Or you can throw caution to the wind and let OS X install any program–from the App Store or elsewhere, signed or unsigned.

So that’s Mountain Lion–or at least the early version that Apple is letting developers try. (The company could be holding back some surprises to announce when the products nears general availability: Wouldn’t it be cool if OS X got its own version of the iPhone 4S’s Siri?) I did notice a few other enhancements that Apple isn’t trumpeting, such as the way the Safari browser finally does away with a separate search field in favor of a unified address bar that can handle both URLs and searches. But large swaths of the operating system and its bundled apps haven’t changed a bit.

(MORE: 50 Best iPhone Apps)

For now, the single best thing about Mountain Lion isn’t any one particular feature. Instead, it’s the impressive degree to which Apple is opening up the upgrade’s goodness to third-party developers. They can write programs that display notifications; they’ll be able to uses Share Sheets and Documents in the Cloud; their games can hook into Game Center. Judging from how quickly new iOS features show up in third-party apps, I’m optimistic that many Mac apps will get on board.

Apple products have always had a reputation for working best when you use them together. With its pervasive links to iOS and iCloud, Mountain Lion will take that truism to a new level. It may not be an entirely new breed of cat, but if it sells for the same price that Lion did–a measly $29–it should make a lot of Mac fans very happy.

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