Apple's got a new big cat on the prowl.
Its name is Mountain Lion, and it's the next major release of Mac OS X.
The software is being released as a preview to Apple developers today, with a commercial release to follow sometime this summer through the company's Mac App Store.
Like Lion before it, Apple has imbued the new software with many of the top-billed features from the iPhone and iPad, all with the intent of making its computers more useful and approachable to the millions that have snatched up an iOS device in recent years. It's also a direct response to recently-added features on those devices that--for better or worse--make the Mac a less essential piece of the puzzle.
Of course, the idea of convergence between the two platforms is nothing new. When taking the wraps off Lion (Mountain Lion's predecessor) in 2010, Steve Jobs said the software was what the company imagined would happen if the iPad and the MacBook "hooked up."
Mountain Lion is very clearly the result of a longer term commitment.
Does that mean we've finally reached a point where OS X (as Apple calls it now, not "Mac OS X") and iOS are on the cusp of becoming one in the same? No. To carry the "hook up" comparison further, it's another step in Apple's strategy to tie users into its ecosystem, creating differences where they're needed, but also blending in similarities that make everything feel more unified.
For years the unification came in the form of iTunes, but as restated by Apple CEO Tim Cook in a talk earlier this week, the company believes that computers are not longer at the center of people's digital lives. In Apple's vision, that role's been taken over by iCloud, and the software that taps into it. In Mountain Lion, iCloud is that glue, taking some of those iOS apps gone OS X and made them work with one another.
That said, the release represents an unusual departure for Apple, which in years past has used its annual developer conference as a place to unveil its major Mac OS releases. Apple broke with that tradition with Lion, instead showing it off about 9 months before it would hit the market. This time around, Apple's giving itself and developers what is likely to be a shorter timeframe to work out bugs and integrate new features.
The end result brings the possibility of both the Mac and iOS devices receiving annual updates, something of an achievement for Apple given that the Mac OS has traditionally held to a release cycle of about every two years. It's also a stark contrast to competitors like Microsoft, which is expected to release its Windows 8 software--the follow-up to 2009's Windows 7--near the end of this year.
As usual, Apple isn't offering a full look at what the new OS will have when it ships but is instead focusing on 10 features that it will launch with. Among them are ones you may have already heard of and been using for the past three months. That includes software like iMessage, Reminders, and Notes. Those three apps were introduced as part of iOS 5 and are now standalone pieces of software that work like and sync up with their iOS counterparts.
Messages, as it's called in Mountain Lion, will replace iChat, the chat software Apple includes out of the box. Users will still get access to IM networks like AIM, Yahoo, and Jabber, though Apple's added compatibility with the same iMessage service that was introduced as part of iOS 5, which Apple says has now served up 26 billion messages since its October launch. Messages can be used to send and receive iMessages with these users for free, and the conversation can be picked up and continued from any device with that same Apple ID and iMessage enabled.
Alongside the developer preview of Mountain Lion, Apple is also offering a beta version of Messages as a standalone download to users of Lion.
Behind the scenes, these new apps are synced up with their mobile counterparts through Apple's iCloud service, which Apple has more deeply integrated into the Mac. That includes a high-profile spot in Finder (the Mac's file viewer), where users can view and access documents they have stored there--just like they would in their iCloud-enabled apps on their iOS device.
Apple's also brought a little bit of iOS fairy dust in the form of two new "Centers" that act as ground zero for certain types of activity. One of those is Notification Center, an iOS 5 feature that takes any notifications from applications--be it a calendar event, an incoming instant message, or a software update--and puts it in an organized list.
Notification Center now sits "next to" the desktop and is accessible from any application you're on. Apple has introduced a new, two-finger swiping motion that opens it up on the side of the screen, as well as a new menubar item in the top right-hand corner of the screen that does the same thing. To coincide with this, there's also a new notification banner and alert system that lets application developers choose between banners and pop-ups that notify you in the corner of the screen (much like third-party app Growl), as well as an alert option that won't go away until you click on it.
The other "center" is Game Center, an app that shows users their full catalog of games, as well as people they've befriended on the service. Just like in iOS, you can view and launch games from here, view achievements, and see leaderboards. That goes hand in hand with a new set of APIs for developers to add multiplayer features to Mac games, including Mac titles that have iOS counterparts.
Two other iOS features to make it into Mountain Lion center on sharing. The first of those is something Apple calls Share Sheets. If you've ever used the built-in Twitter features in iOS 5, the idea here is the same. Apple's added a button to share whatever content you're looking at in applications like Safari, Preview, and iPhoto to other apps and Web services--including Twitter, which users can now post to without having Twitter's Mac OS app installed.
The other sharing addition is screen sharing in the form of AirPlay Mirroring. This is the feature that can take whatever's on your screen and beam it to an Apple TV. It's been a feature on the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S, with Apple now adding it as a drop-down menu option in Mountain Lion. It outputs whatever is on screen in a 720p video stream to an Apple TV unit on the same Wi-Fi network. Apple's also planning an update to its iTunes software that will be able to spit out video content directly to Apple TV units from your computer.
So what's not from iOS?
Apple has made two specific additions to Mountain Lion that cannot be found on iOS. The top one is Gatekeeper, a new security feature designed to fend off malware by controlling what applications can and cannot be installed.
As a new preference within Mountain Lion's security tools, users can choose between one of the following allowed source options:
Mac App Store
Mac App Store and identified developers
By default, Apple's got Mountain Lion set in the middle option, which employs a signature system that checks with Apple to see if a creator of a non-App Store app is a registered developer.
Apple says developers can register for these IDs, then sign their software with them in its Xcode development software. When a user tries to install that software for the first time, the system will then check to make sure it has not been altered since being signed, and that the developer is not a known distributor of malware.
One important thing to point out about this system is that it will not uninstall unsigned software, or prohibit you from using software you've already installed. It's also been designed to let you manually override the protection measures and install something that hasn't been signed, even if your settings are turned all the way up to App Store only.
Another non-iOS addition is the handful of localizations to OS X aimed at Chinese users, including system-wide tie-ins to local search engines and content sharing sites. That includes Baidu search in Safari, integration with QQ, 126 and 163 in Mail, and sharing to services like Sina weibo, Youku and Tudou. Apple's also made some adjustments to its text input for Chinese users' typing in with simplified and traditional Chinese, along with a dictionary the company says will be more frequently updated to keep up.
What's still missing?
One notable iOS feature that hasn't made the trip is Siri, the voice assistant feature introduced as part of the iPhone 4S. Apple says Mountain Lion is still a work in progress and that features may change ahead of its release, but Siri does not appear to be one of those.
That's a curious thing given Siri's role on the iPhone 4S. It's tied into a handful of apps that are now a part of Mountain Lion, including Notes, Reminders, and Messages, as well as software that was there in previous OS X iterations, like Mail, FaceTime, and widgets for checking the weather and stock prices.
One clear reason for this could be that a voice assistant feature simply does not have a place on the desktop just yet. More probable perhaps, is that Apple would not want to introduce it to a desktop OS without a way for developers to tap into it, something the company hasn't done on iOS.
A new OS X every year?
With Mountain Lion, Apple has made the rather unusual move of introducing the next version of Mac OS X not at one of its private events but as a preview to developers that will be released to the public later this year.
As mentioned earlier, the release this summer puts OS X on a track that more closely resembles iOS, Apple's mobile operating system that's seen annual updates since its introduction. In its first few versions of Mac OS X between 2001 and 2003 that's the schedule Apple stuck to, before spanning major OS X releases to every two years (see above).
In an interview last week, the company said this release was a sign of its fast innovation, but will customers who just bought a new Mac or a copy of Lion in the last few months see it like that?
According to Apple's data, half of Mac users are still on Snow Leopard, the version of Mac OS X that preceded Lion. But Lion, which was released last July, has been the company's fastest-selling OS update, with 19 million copies shipped. Those users now account for 30 percent of those on the Mac platform, the company said.
For Apple's software business, an annual release cycle (which the company has not committed to), presents a chance to get consumers to pay once a year as opposed to every two years. And like Lion before it, it's part of a broader strategy to get people comfortable with the Mac App Store, where users now gets these Mac OS updates as well as other software.
The two big questions that remain are whether the two operating systems will converge, and when such a thing will happen. Mountain Lion is certainly another not-so-subtle step in that direction with a handful of iOS apps making their way over to the desktop. But we're not there quite yet. More than anything this release is another move by Apple to make iPhone and iPad users feel at home on a Mac, something that's become increasingly important with those devices now able to exist on their own, without the help of iTunes.
For a more in-depth look at the developer preview of Mountain Lion, see the first look from CNET Reviews.