When Apple launched Mac OS X Lion last July, it brought the Macintosh operating system ever closer to the experience folks had gotten accustomed to on the iPad and iPhone. Now, just seven months later, Apple on Thursday unveiled OS X Mountain Lion, an early preview version for developers.
This ninth major release of OS X goes even further in bringing features common to the iPad and iPhone to the Mac. And when Mountain Lion hits, likely this summer, Apple plans to commit to a roughly 12-month release cycle for new versions of OS X.
This is a heady time for Apple's traditional computers. The Mac has outpaced PC industry growth for 23 consecutive quarters. And during the last quarter of 2011, Mac sales grew 26% year-over-year compared with the overall PC industry, which was flat. Microsoft, of course, is working on Windows 8, the next version of its own ubiquitous operating system, setting the stage for the next big showdown between the longtime rivals.
Apple isn't providing pricing at this point (Lion cost $29.99) or a specific date when Mountain Lion will be uncaged for consumers. The operating system isn't even in its prerelease beta state. But as with its predecessor, Mountain Lion will be available as a digital download through the Mac App Store (and presumably preloaded on new Mac models available at the time).
I've had a chance to check out the early Mountain Lion build on a loaner MacBook Air. Highlights of what's coming:
iCloud. Apple's cloud-based service, launched last fall, now has 100 million accounts. You'll be able to tap into the clouds to set up a new Mac with your Apple ID account credentials. A Documents feature will let you view, create and edit the same documents on your Mac as on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. In a cloud-based Document Library, you can organize documents into folders by dragging one on top of the other similar to the way in which you can create folders containing the apps you have on iOS devices. Apple is opening the technology to Mac developers so that various Mac apps can work with Documents in the cloud. But the feature was not built into the developer preview that I had access to.
Messages. Apple's iChat instant messenger and chat service is being replaced by iMessage, the Mac version of a feature that arrived with iOS 5. IMessage is a key part of a new Messages app for the Mac. The result: You can send messages to or from a Mac to anyone who has an iOS device. Conversations in iMessage are kept up to date across all your computers and devices. And you can send pictures, high-definition video and other attachments up to 100 megabytes in size. You can also send group messages and receive a "read receipt" that lets you know when a person has seen your missive. Through a typing indicator, you will know when the recipient is readying a response. There's also a FaceTime button within the Messages app that lets you launch a video call. And Messages works with the same instant-messaging services that iChat supported, including AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk and Jabber. You won't have to wait for Mountain Lion to try Messages, either; Apple is making available a beta version of the app for users with Lion.
Reminders and Notes. Other iOS features come to the Mac. Reminders are a handy way to track your to-do lists. A built-in Share button inside Notes lets you share your note via e-mail or message.
Notification Center. As on the iPhone or iPad, Notification Center is a central repository for calendar reminders, incoming e-mail, new messages and more. On those iOS devices, you can pull down notifications by dragging your finger from the top of the screen down. On the MacBook Air, I was able to make the Notification Center come and go with a new gesture -- moving two fingers left across the trackpad after starting the gesture off the trackpad. If your Mac doesn't have a trackpad, there's a tiny icon in the upper right of the screen to click.
Twitter. Twitter is now integrated through Mountain Lion. So in the Safari browser, Preview, Photo Booth and Quick Look, you can select Twitter to tweet from within the app. If you choose, you can add a location to your tweet.
Game Center. Apple's social-gaming venue in iOS -- there are more than 20,000 Game Center-enabled games in the App Store -- is coming to the Mac.
AirPlay Mirroring. If you have an Apple TV box on the same network as your Mac, you'll be able to exploit this to wirelessly stream whatever is on your Mac screen to a high-definition television connected to Apple TV.
Gatekeeper. Through the years, Macs have famously avoided the scourge of viruses and malware that have plagued Windows PCs. But Apple is keeping up its guard with new security technology.
Apple promises a lot more, including much easier ways to share pictures, videos, links, documents and content within apps. And I'm sure you can expect a few surprises before the formal launch -- Siri on the Mac, perhaps? For all of that, stay tuned.
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