REVIEW: Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

The unveiling earlier this year of Mountain Lion—also known by the less exciting, but more technically precise name of Mac OS X 10.8—took many Mac users by surprise, as it came little more than six months after the 2011 launch of Lion (10.7). We had to wait a few more months for Mountain Lion to actually ship, but Apple is still setting quite a pace for its OS X upgrades. And that, of course, raises the question of whether you should invest time and money in another operating system upgrade so soon after the last one.

Apple claims there are more than 200 new features in Mountain Lion, but many features are clearly aimed at the consumer market. Facebook and Twitter integration are little more than flavour-of-the-month froth, and the Game Centre brought over from the iPhone certainly won’t be of any interest to business users (unless you’re seriously hooked on lunchtime sessions of Angry Birds). However, there are more substantial features in Mountain Lion, and with a price of just £13.99 it’s good to see that Apple’s software is a lot more reasonably priced than its hardware.

You have Mail (and Notes and Reminders…)

A glance at the list of new features on Apple’s Web site quickly makes it clear that the underlying theme of Mountain Lion is the convergence of the traditional Mac operating system with iOS—the operating system that runs on the iPhone (smartphone) and iPad (tablet).

Mac users gain a new Notes application similar to that found on the iPhone and iPad, along with Mac versions of the iOS Reminders and Messages apps, and the Notification Centre that provides status updates. This will be useful for iPhone or iPad users as these apps—along with the Mac’s existing Mail, Calendar and Contacts programs—can all use Apple’s online iCloud service to automatically sync data with their iOS counterparts.

So if you jot down a reminder to yourself on your office Mac the same reminder will pop up on your iPhone when you’re out and about, or your iPad back home. There’s also a Windows version of iCloud available that provides (limited) compatibility with Outlook on Windows, and Apple has already released a 10.8.1 update for Mountain Lion that improves compatibility between Apple’s Mail program and Microsoft Exchange servers. Most existing drivers should continue to work too, so Mountain Lion should fit into a predominantly Windows-based business environment without providing too many headaches for the IT department.

Documents in the iCloud

Apple has also further refined iCloud itself. As well as syncing information such as e-mails and calendars—as you can already do in Lion—Mountain Lion adds a new option called ‘Documents In The iCloud’ that also allows you to store wordprocessor, spreadsheet and other documents online using iCloud. That obviously sounds very useful. However, developers do have to update their applications in order to use Documents In The iCloud. At the moment it’s only Apple’s own software products—such as the Pages wordprocessor and Numbers spreadsheet—that can automatically upload their documents into iCloud this way.

It is possible to upload documents created with MS Office into your iCloud account, but you have to do this manually, via a Web browser (as is the case with Lion too). To be fair to Apple, it does provide APIs that would allow developers such as Microsoft to add support for iCloud to their own software, but since Microsoft is desperately trying to kickstart its own entry into mobile computing with Windows 8 we don’t see that happening in a hurry. For the time being Dropbox and Microsoft’s own SkyDrive remain the best cloud storage options for users of MS Office on the Mac.

Mirror, mirror

This increased integration with iOS will certainly be handy for anyone that owns an iPhone or iPad, but it doesn’t make Mountain Lion an essential upgrade. However there are a number of other new features in Mountain Lion that may appeal more directly to business users.

There’s a new Dictation feature—clearly based on the Siri technology already used in the iPhone—that allows you to dictate into any program that can accept keyboard text input. Like Siri itself, this seems like more of a novelty than a genuine productivity tool, but it could be handy for firing off a quick e-mail or dictating into the Notes app every now and then.

Apple has also updated its AirPlay wireless technology. AirPlay was originally designed to stream your iTunes music to very expensive wireless speaker systems, but now also includes a video mirroring option that allows you to wirelessly stream your Mac’s screen display to a large-screen HDTV via the merely moderately-expensive Apple TV set-top box (£99). That will be handy for presentations, and the video signal is also encrypted in order to prevent anyone from intercepting sensitive information over your wireless network.

Security

Apple has been rather complacent about security in the past, smugly reassuring Mac users that OS X was impervious to the viruses and malware that are a constant threat to Windows PCs. However, AirPlay’s encryption option is just one of a number of features that suggest Apple is starting to take security more seriously.

Mountain Lion includes a similar encryption option for Time Capsule—the NAS backup device used by many Mac-based small businesses. There’s also a new feature called Gatekeeper that can be used to restrict software downloads onto the Mac. Gatekeeper provides three settings—the strictest of which prevents users from downloading applications from any source other than Apple’s own Mac App Store. You can loosen the reins a little by also allowing downloads from developers that have been approved by Apple and allocated a special digital signature called a Developer ID. The third option is simply to turn Gatekeeper off and allow users to download whatever they want.

Picking apples

Mountain Lion has had a pretty smooth rollout so far—that Exchange update apart—and has already been adopted by more than 10% of the Mac user base in its first month of release. If any of your staff own an iPhone then the increasing integration between iOS and Mac OS X means that they’ll probably want Mountain Lion right away. And, given the low cost of this upgrade, there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t give it to them. There’s no real learning curve involved in adopting Mountain Lion as it is, essentially, just refining features that were already present in Lion.

However, if you’re still using the older Snow Leopard (10.6) then upgrading to Mountain Lion is more of a challenge, as features such as iCloud represent a fundamental shift from a desktop-centric world to the brave new world of mobile computing and the cloud. Even so, that shift is already happening—and Apple seems to be handling it better than Microsoft—so now is as good a time as any. We’ve also heard that Apple is preparing another update—10.8.2—which is thought to tie in with the forthcoming launch of the iPhone 5 and iOS 6. You can bet your boots that the iPhone 5 will include some whiz-bang new features that require Mountain Lion on your Mac in order to work properly. That’s just the way Apple does things.

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