Mountain Lion

It seems like another era, but back in the ’00s, major new-cat-name updates of Mac OS X were a big deal. They were packed with major new features, new built-in apps, significant performance improvements, and often sported refreshed system-wide UI appearances (the long slow fading out of the 10.0 horizontal stripes; the meteoric rise and ignominious demise of our old friend Brushed Metal). We waited in line at Apple Stores to buy them.

They were extravaganzas, and they were priced accordingly at $129. Enthusiasts paid, but many on the consumer side of the Mac market waited until they replaced their machines to get on board with major new versions of the OS.

This changed in 2009 with Snow Leopard, which Apple touted not for its new features or visible changes, but for its under-the-hood improvements. Snow Leopard was, technically and performance-wise, a rousing success, but Apple wisely didn’t try charging the usual $129, instead pricing it at just $29. It was a wise and practical decision, marketing implications be damned, to devote over a year of engineering effort to under-the-hood OS infrastructure. A solid technical foundation is good for everyone — users, Apple, developers alike. But it’s a hard sell — like opening a restaurant that serves nutritious entrees but no desserts. It worked though. Users and critics alike deservedly praised Snow Leopard.

Last year with Lion, Apple added a slew of new features to the OS — some of them highly visible, such as Launchpad and Mission Control — but kept the price at $29. The biggest change was distributing the Lion installer through the App Store. The result: record-breaking adoption. Apple claims 40 percent of Macs were running Lion within 9 months of its release. That’s low by iOS standards — and keep in mind iOS updates are free — but very high in the context of desktop computing history. Apple claims it took Windows 7 26 months — three times longer — to reach 40 percent of the PC installed base, and Windows 7 is the most popular and highly-touted version of Windows in over a decade.

Now, a year later, we’ve got Mountain Lion, and it brings the upgrade cost ever lower to $19.99. That’s great. It encourages users to get on board with the latest and greatest, and I expect the result of this pricing (and the ease of doing so through the App Store) will be a record-breaking (which is to say, faster than Lion) adoption rate.

But what exactly do users get for their twenty bucks? In short: a nicer, more polished version of Lion. There’s definitely new stuff: iCloud document storage (more on that in a bit), Messages (which is more than just a renamed version of iChat — it supports iMessage), Notification Center (which I really like on the Mac; it’s perhaps the feature I’ve missed the most over the last few months testing the Mountain Lion betas when going back to my main machine running Lion). More back-to-the-Mac stuff from iOS, like standalone apps for Notes and Reminders, and convenient system-wide “share sheets” for sending content via email or messages and to websites like Flickr, Twitter, Vimeo, and soon, Facebook. (Facebook integration is not included in OS X 10.8; Apple says it will come in a software update “this fall”.) AirPlay Mirroring is a gem of a feature — a shining example of Apple’s “all our stuff works together seamlessly” philosophy. The new voice dictation feature is accurate, simple, and convenient — a huge accessibility win for anyone who has trouble typing.

But Mountain Lion isn’t billed as a blockbuster release, and it isn’t priced like one. It’s just nicer. And it’s the little things, the attention to detail, that show it best. I’ve spent most of my time testing Mountain Lion on a 2010 11-inch MacBook Air. I’ve noticed that wake-from-sleep times have gotten faster over the course of the beta period. And the MacBook Air woke from sleep just fine on Lion, by the historical standards of Apple notebooks waking from sleep. But “faster” isn’t fast enough, and the Air now feels like it’s getting pretty close to the instant-on wake-from-sleep feel of an iOS device.

Even the Finder has gotten some love. Copy a big folder or file and the progress bar is drawn right on top of the folder or file’s icon. Contextual information right where it’s most applicable. Some engineer spent time making copying files in the Finder a more pleasing experience.

But to understand what Mountain Lion really is, you really need to look at it not as a standalone OS release, but as a step in a series of releases. Snow Leopard, Lion, Mountain Lion — none of these have been radical releases of Mac OS X.1 But taken together, there have been some radical changes to the Mac experience over the last five years: the App Store, sandboxing, and iCloud to name a few. Apple has introduced these features incrementally, which I think has been a win for them engineering-wise, allowing them to roll features out annually rather than queue them all up for one blockbuster major OS release. But it’s also been a win for users, introducing significant changes at a relatively gradual pace.

Take iCloud documents in the cloud. Use Mountain Lion and its built-in apps like TextEdit and Preview for a few hours and it is very clear that this is how Apple wants users to deal with documents and app content. It’s a radical change from the nearly 30-year-old file-system-centric approach to data management on the Mac. The old way: go to the Finder, find the file you want, and open it. The new way: go to the app and open the document from within the app. Conceptually it works just like iOS — your files aren’t in the file system, but rather “in” the app you used to create them. This is the future, but Apple isn’t forcing it upon us. The feature is prominent, yes, because Apple wants us to use it. But it is far from mandatory. Don’t want to use iCloud document storage? Then just keep on managing your files exactly as before. Apple’s not dragging us to the future; they’re enticing us to walk there on our own.

(Other things to note about iCloud documents: drag and drop works as you’d expect. So, yes, if you create a text file using TextEdit, it’s “in” TextEdit conceptually. But when you see it in TextEdit’s iCloud document picker window, you can just drag it out and drop it on another app, and the file will open just fine. Or you can drag it to your desktop or a Finder window. Behind the scenes an iCloud document is really just a file on your Mac with a path like ~/Library/Mobile Documents/com~apple~TextEdit/Documents/Foo.txt. I expected this to feel like a bigger change than it does. Instead it just feels like a simple default folder for each app’s files. I find myself saving fewer scratch documents to my desktop. I’ve always saved files to the desktop when I didn’t want to bother thinking about where they should go. Now, with iCloud documents, it’s like each (iCloud-supporting) app has its own private desktop.)

Mountain Lion, and the incremental approach Apple has taken with recent OS X updates, highlights the growing schism between Apple’s and Microsoft’s philosophies. Windows 8, in contrast to Mountain Lion, is a radical update — years in the works and it introduces a slew of truly disruptive changes to the user experience. Mountain Lion and iOS 6 certainly share a slew of features and code, and through iCloud are growing to support a single cross-device experience. But they are very much two different and distinct systems, one for traditional keyboard and pointer device personal computers, and another for touchscreen mobile devices. One for trucks, one for cars, to borrow Steve Jobs’s analogy.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is clearly betting everything on their single OS strategy. We’ll see how that goes. But in terms of their traditional blockbuster “It’s taken us a few years but here’s something totally new and different” approach to major OS releases, I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Windows 8 might be the last. How else can they compete with the iPad but than to switch to an Apple-style schedule of annual incremental updates?

That mindset and development schedule — “What can we do to make this nicer by next year?” — may well be the most important thing from iOS that Apple has taken back to the Mac.

  1. You could argue, perhaps, that the one and only truly radical version of Mac OS X was 10.0 in 2001. If they had it to do all over again, I suspect Apple might have dropped the upgrade price far below $129 starting with 10.2. ↩︎