IT takes wait-and-hope approach to Mountain Lion

On Thursday, Apple released the developer preview for Mountain Lion, which will be generally released late summer 2012. Among the key changes: Versions of applications and services originally created for the iOS mobile platforms; built-in integration with the iCloud service; and a new application security feature called Gatekeeper.

Apple’s focus continues to be individual consumers, not enterprise IT groups, according to analysts and IT users. In some cases, these “consumerized” features can naturally boost the usability, productivity and security for corporate Mac users. But what’s currently missing, or at least not yet apparent, is whether Apple will provide tools that make it possible to administer and secure Mac users in groups.

Mountain also continues the, for some, controversial trend toward introducing for Macs a range of behaviors and capabilities first developed for Apple’s mobile iPhones and iPads. The goal is still a subject of debate.

“The biggest thing I see…[is] Apple is working on feature parity from iOS and OS X,” says Randy Saeks, network manager at Northbrook/Glenview School District 30, in Northbrook, Illi., a big Mac and iOS shop. “Features from iOS (iMessage, Notification Center for example) are now added to the desktop OS. This, to me, shows Apple working to merge the two platforms sometime down the road. From the IT perspective this may mean we don’t have to worry about the intricacies of each platform (iOS vs OS X) and can focus on one.”

But Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg doesn’t think Apple’s goal is to unify the two platforms into one. Rather, he says, it is “one step forward to unify the Apple ecosystem,” which increasingly is oriented around a “personal cloud.” He defines “ecosystem” as the overall look and feel and behavior of Apple products from the standpoint of the individual enduser, so that “services and content flow across devices, but are contextually appropriate for each device,” whether a big-screen desktop Mac, a MacBook laptop, an iPhone or an Apple TV.

Mountain Lion’s integration with iCloud is essential to this vision. Apple says there are now over 100 million iCloud users. For these people, Gartenberg argues, the cloud is becoming more important than the OS platform or even the device. Even the log-in for Mountain Lion seems to reflect this, he says. “You log on and the first thing it asks for is your iCloud information [i.e, your Apple ID],” Gartenberg says. Once it has that, it will automatically set up the contacts, mail, calendar, FaceTime, Find My Mac, along with others services. The iCloud Documents service pushes any changes in a document to all your iCloud-connected devices.

But it’s precisely that ease of use that could raise enterprise concerns, says Ryan Faas in an early assessment at Cult of Mac. “The problem I can see based on Apple’s descriptions and short feature videos is that it all happens simultaneously with little or no control by the user or by the user’s IT department,” he says. “That means Mountain Lion may just sync everything, personal and professional. With documents and notes, that’s particularly problematic from a business security standpoint.”

A batch of new applications in Mountain Lion will be familiar to the vastly more numerous enterprise users of iPhones and iPads, which is surely one reason why Apple is blending them into the next OS X release. The Messages app replaces iChat on the Mac, letting you send text messages, photos and videos from your Mountain Lion Mac directly to any other Mac or iOS device. A beta version of Messages is now available for current Mac users to try out, via www.apple.com, and Mountain Lion will have it built-in.

The Reminders and Notes apps let users create to-do lists and track them across Macs, iPhones, and iPads.

Apple takes notifications to a new level with Mountain Lion, centralizing them as it has done for iOS. The Mountain Lion Notification Center is a central clearinghouse for virtually all alerts: new emails, calendar entries, messages, as well as system updates and third-party app notifications.

The new Twitter integration for Mac shows Apple’s approach to exploiting cloud-based services: users sign on and can tweet from a range of Mac and third-party apps. AirPlay Mirroring will let a Mountain Lion user wirelessly transmit 720p video from the Mac to a high-def flat panel via Apple TV.

The new security feature is called Gatekeeper, which exploits an existing Apple OS X capability called File Quarantine that checks applications before they launch for the first time. When you launch a Mountain Lion application, the OS will check its security settings to see if the software is cleared to run. In those settings, users can chose to have software run from any source, from only the Mac App Store, or (and this is the default for Mountain Lion) from the Mac App Store and specified “identified developers.” These developers are those who have registered with Apple and been granted a personal digital certificate to sign their applications. Users and Apple knows who developed the signed application and any tampering with the code can be detected.

“I do see an advantage for the enterprise in the ability to lock a Mac to only using apps from the App Store,” says Benjamin Levy, a principal for Solutions Consulting, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in Apple deployments for enterprise customers. “Combining that with Apple’s Volume Purchase Program, IT can provide specific apps to a user while also permitting the user to add apps that IT will know have been vetted and [therefore] will respect limitations and configurations already in place.”

“With the new Mac App store requirements for [application] sandboxing (just like for iOS) plus the new Gatekeeper feature, Mac admins [will] have finer control over who can install what Apps, and from where,” says Derick Okihara, IT technician and Mac expert, at Mid-Pacific Institute, Honolulu, Hawaii. “We’ve never had that directly from Apple.”

Mountain Lion reflects the faster pace of OS X releases: now being planned yearly. That schedule may well squeeze IT departments. The challenge with a fast release cycle—look at Firefox for example—is the testing phase,” says Randy Saeks. “With [OS X] Lion being so new, organizations might have just started deploying or not even deployed that version of the OS, and now there is another item to consider and think about moving forward.” IT groups will have to become more nimble to keep up, he adds.

“This will put IT shops in a tough situation to keep up with updates,” says Okihara. “Hopefully Apple provides some tools to help us with this.”

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

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