Mountain Lion, the latest Mac operating system, introduces more than 200 new features but seems to have only one overarching goal: binding your computer ever more firmly to your iPhone and iPad, while binding you ever more firmly to Apple. (AAPL:US)
Compared to the previous version of Apple’s OS X software, Lion -- which overhauled everything from how programs are launched to how you scroll through a web page -- Mountain Lion is an incremental improvement, bringing to the Mac several functions already familiar to users of the company’s mobile devices.
I’ve been running the new software for a week, both on a laptop borrowed from the company and on an iMac desktop where I installed it myself. The upgrade, which is available only as a download from the Mac App Store, costs $20 and allows you to install it on all your personally owned Macs.
Mountain Lion works on most models released since 2007, though it requires that you already have either Lion or its predecessor, Snow Leopard.
The upgrade process took about an hour and a quarter using a cable modem. It required little input from me and was aggravation-free. The biggest issue I confronted was the temporary disappearance of an icon for Google (GOOG:US)’s Chrome browser, easily fixed.
The most significant change in Mountain Lion is its integration with iCloud, the free Apple service that automatically stores your data online and lets you easily access it from any Apple device.
For instance, using the Documents in the Cloud feature, I created a file on the Mac using Apple’s Pages word-processing application, pulled it down on an iPad to make a few tweaks, then saw them reflected the next time I came back to the Mac.
At the outset, Documents in the Cloud is limited to Apple applications such as Pages and the other components in the company’s iWorks productivity suite. It will be up to third- party developers, such as Microsoft (MSFT:US), whether they want to adopt it for their products too.
Mountain Lion also brings the Messages app, already used on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, to the Mac. Messages, which replaces the previous iChat program, allows you to send free, unlimited texts to fellow Apple users.
Even better, your conversations are duplicated and kept up to date on all your Apple devices, so that, in my case, I was able to start a conversation with an iPhone-wielding offspring using the Mac, then seamlessly continue it on an iPad.
Messages is just one of the applications hatched on the iPad-iPhone operating system, called iOS, that have now migrated to the Mac. Others making the trek include the Game Center hub and social network, a new centralized Notification Center that slides in and out with a finger swipe, and new apps for notes and reminders -- all of them tied together so anything done on one Apple device is reflected on all Apple devices.
For all the convenience, Apple’s relentless drive to put itself at the center of your entire online experience can sometimes feel a little overweening.
A good example is the new Gatekeeper feature, designed to enhance security by throwing up obstacles to keep you from unknowingly installing malicious software.
Programs from the Mac App Store or from developers certified by Apple glide through, but for anything else, you have to manually override Gatekeeper and convince Mountain Lion you really, really want to install that software.
Eventually, perhaps, every Mac program will have some sort of Apple stamp of approval. After all, the only official source for iPad and iPhone apps is the company’s carefully controlled App Store.
Personal computers, though, have a long tradition of user choice in software. And Gatekeeper’s harping seemed a bit much to go through when all I wanted was to install software from Verizon (VZ:US) to let me use my wireless modem. Even adding an “Install anyway” button to the warning window would have reduced my annoyance.
Lest you start to feel completely imprisoned by the Apple- centric ecosystem, though, Mountain Lion includes a few new nods in the direction of connecting with the wider world.
Twitter, for example, is now deeply integrated throughout the operating system. Once you log in to your account through the System Preferences setting, you can easily tweet through the Notifications Center, as well as a Share button built into many applications.
A similar tie with Facebook (FB:US) will be rolled out in an update, though I was able to check out a pre-release version. You’ll also be able to bring your Facebook friends into your Contacts address book, and receive activity alerts through the Notification Center.
Then there’s AirPlay Mirroring, which allows you to wirelessly toss anything from your Mac’s screen onto a high- definition television equipped with the compact $99 Apple TV set-top box.
It sure beats fumbling with a projector and cables if you’re doing, say, a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. But it makes you dependent on yet another piece of Apple technology.
Which, of course, is precisely the idea.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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