Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion preview: Notification Center, iMessage, AirPlay and more

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It's only been seven months since Apple launched Mac OS 10.7 Lion, but the company isn't sitting still: it just announced the developer preview of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, a tweaked and enhanced new version of the operating system that includes major new features like Notification Center, AirPlay mirroring, and iMessage. Yes, those are all headline iOS features as well; Mountain Lion continues Apple's cycle of using the iPhone and iPad to influence Mac development and vice versa. And note the name change — Apple's dropping the "Mac" and simply calling it OS X Mountain Lion.

Mountain Lion also represents a dramatic speedup in the pace of OS X updates: Apple says it'll be issuing yearly updates from now on. That's partially to match the breakneck pace of iOS development, but also to capitalize on the growing popularity of the Mac in general — Mac sales have outgrown the general PC market for something like six years now, and Apple says it's investing heavily in the platform to build on that trend.

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It's not all iOS features, though. Apple's introducing Gatekeeper, which can only be described as a bold new middle ground for app distribution: an optional setting in OS X 10.8 allows users to restrict their systems to run only apps that have been signed by trusted developers using a free certificate provided by Apple. It's somewhere between the locked-down and curated Mac App Store and the totally unrestricted world of the web, and the goal is to prevent malware from running while still allowing users to download apps from the open web — and turning off all the locks is still just a click away.

Mountain Lion is very much a major new version of OS X, not just a polish-and-stabilize job like Snow Leopard

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In addition, Mountain Lion includes Game Center and GameKit, which allows for cross-platform multiplayer gaming and achievements. There's also enhanced iCloud support across the entire system, further refinements to Mail, new Twitter integration with a iOS-like Share button available across apps, and a host of additions and features specific to China, Apple's fastest-growing market. It's a ton of stuff; Mountain Lion is very much a major new version of OS X, not just a polish-and-stabilize job like Snow Leopard.

Mountain Lion will be out later this summer as a paid update in the Mac App Store, but developers can download preview builds starting today. We've been playing with an early copy for a few days now, and while a few pieces aren't quite finished, it's still pretty impressive — Apple's done a remarkable job of blending core elements of iOS into OS X while still preserving the spirit and functionality of the Mac.

Major features

Major features

Although Mountain Lion includes Apple's usual "hundreds of new features," there are a few standouts — and most of them involve bringing over some version of a major iOS feature to OS X. Apple's been very open about its plan to share features and development work across iOS and OS X, and Mountain Lion is clearly designed to feel as familiar as possible to the huge base of iOS users who might be interested in switching to a Mac. Longtime Mac users just get new stuff to play with in the process.

Notification Center

Mac users have relied on the excellent open-source Growl notification system for years now, so the addition of Notifications Center to Mountain Lion seems a bit anticlimactic at first glance. But look a little deeper and it's clear that Apple has a very different idea about how notifications should work — an idea that's unsurprisingly almost exactly how they work in iOS 5. Notifications appear at the top right of the screen as banners that automatically slide away after five seconds or alerts that require some user interaction to disappear, and a new icon on the right side of the menu bar lights up blue when new notifications arrive. Clicking on the icon slides the OS X desktop over to the left to reveal Notification Center itself, which looks identical to iOS 5 — it even has the same linen texture.

Notification Center will be very familiar to iOS users

You can also use a new gesture to bring up Notification Center: a two finger swipe to the left from the right edge of the trackpad. Swiping right with two fingers from anywhere then closes the panel. It's Apple's first edge gesture, and it adds to OS X's already-intense mix of trackpad moves: two-finger swipes to scroll and navigate, three-finger swipes to manage spaces and full screen apps, and four-finger pinches to bring up Launchpad and show the desktop. In practice I found everything easy enough to remember — it's just another swipe to the left, after all — but a couple times I found myself accidentally going back in Safari when started my swipe in the middle of the trackpad instead of on the right side. Apple says the basic rule is that one finger gestures in iOS are two finger gestures in OS X, but I much preferred the unoffical Lion metaphor of two fingers for app-level commands and three and four fingers for system-level commands. Everything definitely works, but there's also definitely room for it to all work better in the final version.

(The addition of the Notification Center gesture also cements the need for a Magic Trackpad if you’re a desktop Mac user — there’s no key command to invoke the panel, and the Magic Mouse won’t have a gesture for it either. You’re stuck clicking on the icon unless you have a trackpad.)

It's hard to imagine life without centralized notifications after a while

There’s a new preference pane to manage notifications and how they’re displayed; as with everything else about Notification Center it’ll look very familiar to iOS 5 users. Settings like notification type, icon badges, and sounds are managed on a per-app level, and you can order notifications manually or have them auto-sort by time. And... that’s really it. Just as in iOS 5, the system works well, but isn’t tremendously flexible — Growl users with wild custom configurations are going to bristle against Notification Center’s limitations for quite some time. You can’t even set notifications to display in a different corner of the screen — it’s the upper right or nothing. Apple says the idea is that notifications should disappear to where users can find them again, but I'm hoping that goal is expressed as a default setting that can be changed in the final version, not the only setting.

On the other hand, if you’re not using Growl you’ll find Notification Center to be a major enhancement to the OS X experience — it’s hard to imagine life without centralized notifications after using it for a while. We’re just hoping Apple keeps with its recent hiring history and poaches a few people from the Growl team to make Notification Center even better as time goes on.

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Messages

iChat’s been given a new name, a huge makeover, and some major new functionality in Mountain Lion: it’s now called Messages, features a very iPad-like single window interface, and supports Apple’s proprietary iMessage service with hooks to launch FaceTime video calls. (FaceTime is still a separate app, but Messages can launch it and initiate a call without any additional steps.) You can actually try Messages out right now — Apple’s offering a free beta for Lion users that’ll expire when Mountain Lion comes out this summer.

Underneath the hood Messages is just an update to iChat — version 6.1, according to the about box — but apart from the preferences window and buddy list for Google Talk, Jabber, AIM, and Yahoo, you’d never know it. The new interface blends IM, text messaging, and message history search into something else entirely. It’s especially great when you use iMessage, which seamlessly spans devices using iCloud: it’s easy to start a conversation on the desktop, carry it over to an iPad, and then walk out the door still chatting on an iPhone without any interruption — and then come home and quickly search through your entire message history. When this all works, it definitely feels like the future.

When iMessage works, it definitely feels like the future

There are still some rough edges in the developer preview, however. The first problem is simply structural: not everyone uses iMessage for everything, and it’s easy to find yourself looking at an unwieldy mix of iMessage, Google Talk, and AIM messages all from the same person at the same time. People use different message services for different things, but Messages wants to mix everything together in a way that doesn’t always make sense — and only iMessages will sync across devices, so you might find yourself missing pieces on iOS devices. iMessages sent from iPhones that fall back to SMS also won’t show up, which can be confusing. It's also a little backwards that the interface requires an extra click to start a new message but search is always open; I want to write new messages far more often than I want to search old ones, after all.

But by far the biggest issue preventing Messages from being the ultimate unified messaging system is that iMessage on the iPhone is tied to your phone number by default, while the iPad and Mountain Lion use email addresses to identify your iMessage account. That means you can send iMessages from your computer to your heart’s content, but messages sent to your phone number simply won’t show up on your computer or iPad. Switching your iPhone to use your email address for caller ID solves the problem in a roundabout way — anyone replying to you will send iMessages to your email address, but new iMessages sent to your phone number will still only arrive on your phone.

Encouragingly, Apple seemed to understand the caller ID issues with Messages when I asked, so I’m hoping there’s a cohesive solution in the works — there’s certainly plenty of time before Mountain Lion ships this summer.

AirPlay Mirroring

AirPlay is one of the best features of iOS, and Apple’s bringing some of it to OS X — you can now use AirPlay Mirroring with an Apple TV to view your computer’s screen on a television. The AirPlay icon simply appears in the menu bar when you’re on the same network as an Apple TV, and it’s just one click to turn it on. You'll get stereo audio and output is limited by the Apple TV to 720p, but Mountain Lion will automatically switch to the best local screen resolution it can find for your system and scale automatically, so you don’t really need to worry about settings. You’re able to play iTunes movies and TV shows, but licensing restrictions unfortunately means the local display gets blacked out. (This is particularly stupid, but it's only fair to blame the studios for such foolishness, not Apple.)

AirPlay wasn’t yet enabled on our test system, but Apple showed us a very impressive demo of an iPad and a MacBook Air playing Real Racing head-to-head, with the Mac streaming to a TV. We’ll have to see how it all works with real-world bandwidth in our own living room, but what we saw was definitely amazing — and we can think of many, many more possibilities for AirPlay on OS X beyond simple mirroring down the line.



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One of the best features of iOS comes to the Mac
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Tying the Mac into the huge popularity of iOS gaming seems like a smart move

Game Center

By the way, you read that right — we saw Real Racing on a Mac being played head-to-head with an iPad. Apple’s bringing Game Center and Game Kit to OS X to capitalize on the enormous popularity of games in the Mac App Store, and yes, it’s all cross-compatible with iOS. The Game Center app looks and feels just like the iOS Game Center app, with friends, finding multiplayer opponents, leaderboards, achievements, and now in-game voice chat on OS X. We weren’t able to try it out on our preview system, but Apple demoed adding a friend for us, and it worked exactly as you’d expect, complete with notification and that super-annoying Game Center bugle audio alert. Thankfully, you can turn it off.

Game Kit lets developers quickly make use of all those features, as well as support cross-device multiplayer for both live and asynchronous games, and Apple says developers who’ve used the Game Kit APIs for iOS will find it pretty easy to make them work on OS X. We’re not sure if the Mac will ever match up against PC gaming when it comes to raw framerates and horsepower, but Apple’s certainly sweetening the OS X gaming experience in other ways — and tying the Mac into the huge popularity of iOS gaming certainly seems like a smart move.

iCloud

Mountain Lion is Apple’s first OS X release after the launch of iCloud, and the cloud service is woven even more tightly into the system. You’re presented with an Apple ID login screen when you first install the OS, and the system pulls down and sets up iCloud, Mac App Store, FaceTime, and iTunes automatically. You’re then prompted to setup iCloud itself, and the system will auto-populate your contacts, calendars, and bookmarks for you.

Apple’s also added Documents in the Cloud to 10.8, so apps can now store and access files directly from iCloud. It’s not currently enabled in our developer preview build, but it worked seamlessly in the demo we saw — Pages documents created on the iPad instantly showed up in the new iCloud-enabled Document Library, and changes made on the Mac were instantly pushed to the iPad. You can also now make folders for iCloud documents using an interface that’s much like the iOS app folders UI, but there’s still no proper user-visible file system for iCloud, and if you want to share files among apps you’ll have to download them to your machine first.

iCloud does a lot of silent background work in Mountain Lion

iCloud also does a lot of silent work in the background in Mountain Lion: apps like Messages, Reminders, Calendar, and Notes all seamlessly sync across devices, and Safari syncs tabs across OS X and iOS, much like the new Chrome for Android. Third party apps can of course tap into all these services as well, and a new API lets developers enable Documents in the Cloud and Document Library as well.



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China

China is Apple’s largest-growing market, and Mountain Lion offers improved Chinese text input with better prediction and autocorrection, the ability to include English characters without switching keyboards, and improved handwriting recognition for Chinese characters. There’s also a number of new Chinese services integrated in Mountain Lion, including the Baidu search engine, the Sina weibo blogging service, the Youku and Tudou video services, and the QQ, 126, and 163 mail services.

iOS comes to OS X

iOS keeps coming to OS X

If Lion was OS X with a few iOS flourishes, Mountain Lion is OS X with a head-to-toe makeover. The iOS install base is many times bigger than OS X, so Apple’s tweaking and renaming things to make OS X that much more familiar to iOS users who’ve been tempted into buying their first Mac. The changes are wide-ranging: iCal, iChat, and Address Book have been renamed to Calendar, Messages, and Contacts, Reminders and Notes have been pulled out made into their own iCloud-enabled apps, and there are new iOS-style Share buttons with Twitter integration throughout the system. It's a comprehensive set of changes — let’s take a look.

Calendar

Calendar in Mountain Lion still sports the hideous faux-leather texture treatment it got in Lion, but two of the more glaring interface annoyances have been remedied: clicking the Calendars button now slides open a listing of all your calendars instead of dropping down a popover sheet and you can turn off invitation alerts while leaving meeting reminders active.

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Notes

Notes is now a standalone application that looks almost exactly like the iPad Notes app, although thankfully with less faux-stitched-leather accents. (There’s still a fake ripped-paper effect at the top of the notes field, and the window header still has a fake leather texture, though. Sigh.) You can double click on a note to pop it open in a standalone window that’ll remain open even after you quit the main Notes app, and you can set individual note windows to always stay on top, although the windows disappeared in Mission Control and couldn’t be moved on top of full screen apps or other Spaces. (We’re hoping this changes in the final build.)

Notes also support inline images and links, and you can format fonts, styles, and colors any way you like. There’s also a surprisingly robust bulleted-list feature that kicks in as soon as you type a bullet, which is nice. Notes syncs with iCloud out of the box, but you can also sync with Gmail, Yahoo, and other services that support notes.

Reminders

Reminders were built into iCal in Lion, but Apple’s pulled the feature out and built a dedicated Reminders app in Mountain Lion that — surprise! — looks just like the iOS 5 Reminders app. Reminders can be added to iCloud and automatically synced across devices, but you can also sync with CalDAV services like Google Calendar and Yahoo. Mountain Lion doesn’t offer any fancy location-aware reminders like iOS 5, but there’s all the other basic functionality you’d expect: alerts, due dates, priorities, multiple accounts and lists. Other than that, it’s a pretty bare-bones app — it doesn’t even have preferences dialog.

Reminders
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Sharing / Twitter

iOS-style share buttons have popped up all over Mountain Lion, offering you the ability to quickly share almost anything via Mail, Messages, AirDrop, Flickr, Vimeo, and Twitter. Twitter is a standout: just like iOS, it’s integrated throughout the system, and you’ll get notifications for replies and direct messages. You can also sync contact pictures with your Twitter list, and tweets can pick up your rough location using OS X’s Location Services.

You can share anything you can Quick Look

Once you pick a service in the share drop down, an iOS-style share sheet appears and lets you post directly from whatever app you’re in — and you can share anything you can Quick Look from anywhere in the system as well. There’s an API that lets developers add share buttons to third party apps, but there’s no way to add additional services — a pity, since Facebook and YouTube are notable omissions. (Facebook and YouTube do appear in QuickTime Player’s share list and it sounds as though they may come to iPhoto, but they’re not system-wide.)

Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper

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Gatekeeper is a major new addition to Mountain Lion, and a major change for OS X app distribution in general. Apple will now be offering Mac developers the ability to sign their apps before distribution, and Mountain Lion will ship out of the box restricted to running only signed apps and apps from the Mac App Store. (You can still run any app you want by right-clicking on an unsigned app or simply changing the global setting to allow apps from anywhere. You can also lock things down even tighter and only allow App Store apps to run.) Apple's says it's still tweaking a lot of the language and controls around Gatekeeper, so expect the text in the screenshot above to be different when Mountain Lion ships — the company wants to make Gatekeeper easy to understand and use without training users to blindly accept defaults.

Apple says Gatekeeper is a response to the growing threat of malware that relies on clever social engineering to get users to run malicious code hidden within another seemingly-innocuous app — the company doesn’t think it’s a huge problem now, but it’s trying to ward it off at the pass. There’s some basic identity verification when developers sign up for a certificate, but the overall process is meant to be quick and easy; Apple is insistent that the goal of Gatekeeper is not to curate or control the broader world of Mac app development, but rather to make getting apps from the web safer for end users. To that end, there’s no cost to developers beyond the standard Mac developer program fees, and the key is valid even if the developer quits the program.

It’s also important to note that the system is essentially local: your machine will download a list of keys from Apple at least daily, and Apple doesn't track what apps you’re running or anything like that. (Your Gatekeeper setting gets sent if you opt-in to diagnostic reports, however.) On paper, it sounds like a clever solution to the malware problem, but Apple's going to have to convince developers to participate for it to work — expect to hear a lot about Gatekeeper in the months to come.

Gatekeeper is a clever idea, but Apple will have to sell developers on it
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Wrap-up


Mountain Lion feels like a must-have update to Mac OS X
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There’s a ton of new stuff in Mountain Lion — we’ve just scratched the surface of the developer preview, and we haven't even talked about the new unified search / address bar in Safari, the VIP filter in Mail, or the complete disappearance of Software Update in favor of App Store updates. And that's just the beginning: Apple says that plenty will be changed and added between now and the final release this summer.

But even with all the rough edges and loose ends in the developer preview, Mountain Lion looks like a must-have update to OS X — the combination of Notification Center, AirPlay, and Messages more than makes up for any of Lion’s lingering irritations, and I say that as someone who’s stubbornly remained on Snow Leopard for the past seven months. Apple's not saying how much 10.8 will cost when it arrives, but just like Lion, it'll be distributed exclusively in the Mac App Store. Until then, we’ll be tracking Mountain Lion’s development closely — and trying to dig up as much as we can on next year’s release of OS X.

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