How do you prep a venerable computer operating system to flourish in late 2012 and beyond?
We’re about to get answers to that question from both Apple and Microsoft, in the form of major upgrades to the world’s two most popular operating systems. Apple’s new Mac software, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, is hitting the Mac App Store today; Microsoft’s Windows 8 is due just three months later, on October 26th.
Superficially, the two updates share big-picture themes. Both draw inspiration from their makers’ mobile operating systems, Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. Each uses an Internet service–iCloud in the case of Mountain Lion, SkyDrive with Windows 8–to share data, settings and other items between multiple computers and other devices.
But what’s most striking about Mountain Lion and Windows 8 isn’t the similarities, but their fundamentally different visions. To swipe a line from Yogi Berra, both Apple and Microsoft see a fork in the road–and they’re taking it.
Microsoft thinks the future is about one operating system that runs on all sorts of gadgets. It’s de-emphasizing the Windows look and feel that haven’t changed much since the mid-1990s in favor of Metro, a bold, touch-friendly interface designed to work on everything from hulking tower PCs to slim, iPad-esque tablets. The company is even going to sell some of those tablets itself: The uncommonly slick Surface is the first-ever PC to carry the Microsoft name.
Apple, by contrast, doesn’t need to give OS X a radical mobile makeover or gin together an iPad-esque tablet–hey, it’s already got the iPad. So Mountain Lion is built for precisely the same machines as previous versions: MacBooks, iMacs, Mac Minis and Mac Pros, equipped with a keyboard and either an oversized touchpad or a touch-sensitive Magic Mouse. This software is happy to be a conventional (albeit ambitious) operating system for conventional (albeit ambitious) computers.
As with last year’s OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple is doing its darndest to make the Mountain Lion upgrade irresistibly painless. Rather than paying for a shiny disc in a box, you buy it as a 4GB download from the Mac App Store; installation requires next to no human intervention, and went smoothly in my case. (I tried the new operating system on both my own MacBook Air and a pre-loaded Retina MacBook Pro loaned to me by Apple.)
Speaking of irresistible, Apple, which once charged $129 for OS X upgrades such as Leopard, now prices them as if it were Crazy Eddie. Fork over just $19.99 for Mountain Lion–down from $29.99 apiece for the last two versions–and you’re entitled to install it on all the Macs associated with your iTunes account, provided they’re currently running either Lion or Snow Leopard.
When the company first previewed Lion back in 2010, it did so at an event it called “Back to the Mac.” That meant that it was giving operating system features to the Mac which were inspired by iOS, such as a full-screen mode, a minimalist application manager called Launchpad and an App Store. The idea was so big that it’s overflown into Mountain Lion: More than most operating-system updates, this one riffs on the same concepts as its immediate predecessor.
For starters, a bunch more iOS features, including some which didn’t even exist a year ago, have come back to the Mac. The single most important one is probably Notifications, a unified system that lets programs of all sorts briefly command your attention even when you’re not using them, via messages which pop up in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
Crucial notifications such as calendar reminders stay there until you dismiss them; others, like incoming e-mail messages and updates to apps, fade away after 10 seconds. An icon at the rightmost side of the OS X Menu Bar lets you shove your entire workspace over to the left, making room for a running list of alerts you may have missed.
You can easily customize notifications for individual apps, or temporarily disable all of them when you don’t want to be be bugged. It’s all incredibly useful–and except for the fact that everything appears over to the right, it’s very similar to the Notifications that debuted in iOS 5.
Notifications are also reminiscent of Growl, an open-source alert utility that does much the same thing for many third-party Mac apps. But I like Apple’s take even better, mostly because of that slide-out right-hand panel. It makes it simple to peek at recent notifications when you care–and it’s equally simple to ignore them when you don’t.
Apple programs bundled with OS X, such as Mail, Calendar, FaceTime and the App Store use Notifications right now, but the feature–like several other Mountain Lion additions–will really come into its own as third-party programs start to support it.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that every application you use will get every Mountain Lion feature it would benefit from: Major apps from big companies such as Microsoft and Adobe still haven’t picked up on all of Lion’s goodies from last year. Historically, though, most Mac developers latch onto significant new OS X features swiftly, so expect a flurry of updates in the weeks to come.
Apple also raided the iOS cupboard for Messages, an app whose Mac edition debuted as a public beta and is now built into OS X. Replacing the familiar iChat, Messages is an instant-messaging program with group-chat capability and a dash of text messaging mixed in. It still supports the modes of communications that iChat did–including AIM and Yahoo Messenger–but also does iMessages, Apple’s own super-smart text messaging service which already works on iPhones and iPads. iMessages don’t count against any text-message allotment you get from your wireless carrier, and they do things conventional text messages can’t, such as tell you when the person on the other end has seen them.
Unlike iChat, Message also logs all your iMessages on all your Apple devices and syncs them up. You can start chatting on your Mac, then pick up the conversation on an iPhone or Pad, and you’ll see the whole conversation everywhere.
In fact, all your stuff being available on all your Apple gizmos at all times is a recurring theme in Mountain Lion. There’s more evidence of it in the new Notes and Reminders apps, both of which, like Notifications and Messages, are closely modeled on their iOS equivalents. Whatever you jot in them, on any device, is immediately whisked up to the Internet via iCloud, then back down again and onto every other device.
On a similar note, iCloud has a new feature called Documents in the Cloud which really should have been there from the get-go. (It replaces a far clunkier service called iWork.com.) Programs such as Apple’s Pages, Numbers and Keynote now have file browsers that provide access to all the documents you’ve created on as many Macs, iPhones and/or iPads as you’ve got. Third-party developers will be able to use Documents in the Cloud to add the same functionality to their own wares, and I hope that many of them will.
Other Mac developers–the ones who build games rather than mundane useful stuff–will want to get to work on supporting Game Center, Apple’s social network for gamers. It’s now available on OS X as well as iOS X, and even makes it possible for programmers to write games that let Mac owners compete against iPhone and iPad users.
They can even do that competing on a big-screen TV, thanks to AirPlay Mirroring. Like its equivalent in iOS, this option lets you beam your Mac’s display and audio, effortlessly and wirelessly, to an HDTV hooked up to Apple’s grilled-cheese-sandwich-sized $99 Apple TV box. If you needed an excuse to spring for Apple TV, which can also stream iTunes, Netflix and YouTube directly off the Net–well, you just got it. (Apple says it thinks AirPlay will also be a hit in classrooms.)