Mountain Lion review: Apple gets its operating systems in sync
Alert! Notification Center appears
Sometimes your Mac needs to get your attention. For years, many Mac app developers have built their own—think of meeting reminder pop-ups in iCal or Microsoft Office, for example. For years, the open-source project Growl has attempted to create a more general notification system, and it’s supported by lots of apps.
With Mountain Lion, OS X gains a system-level notification system accessible to every developer, with features much like those already found in iOS. Alerts appear in the top right corner of the screen in a small bubble. Notifications remain there for five seconds, and then slide off screen to the right (unless you swipe them away first, or click on them to open the relevant app). Alerts, on the other hand, remain on-screen until you click on the Show or Close (or in the case of some alerts, Snooze) buttons.
In iOS 5, you see all your recent notifications by pulling down from the top of the screen to reveal Notification Center. In Mountain Lion, the Notification Center list is a narrow band that lives just to off the right side of your screen. You can reveal it either by clicking on the new Notification Center icon at the far right of the menu bar, or by swiping with two fingers starting at the far right edge of the trackpad. Either way, your entire Mac interface will slide to the left, revealing a list of what’s been trying to get your attention recently.
Not all notifications come from apps, either: Because Mountain Lion includes integrated support for Twitter and (coming this fall) Facebook, Notification Center can display notifications from either service—direct messages and/or mentions on Twitter, and a whole host of optional items (events, application requests, nearby friends, friend requests, comments, wall posts, messages, photo tags, friend confirmations, and place tags) on Facebook. Apple has even built quick sharing links into the very top of the Notification Center list, so you can click to quickly write a tweet or Facebook status post.
There’s also a new Notifications pane in the System Preferences app, analogous to the Notifications submenu in iOS’s Settings app. From here, you can choose which apps appear within Notification Center and how their alert bubbles behave.
Notifications are good when you want to see them, but they can also get in your way, depending on context. Apple has made some smart decisions in order to let you squelch notifications when they’re not appropriate. If you scroll up in the Notification Center list, a new option is revealed: Show Alerts and Banners. If you flip the switch to Off, notifications are muted—but only until tomorrow. Apple assumes that you just don’t want to be bugged right now, but doesn’t want you to miss out on important notifications in the future.
Another clever feature is Notification Center’s auto-sensing when a Mac is connected to an external display. I use a second display at my desk, and Notification Center has no problem displaying alerts there. But if I hook up my MacBook to an HDTV or a projector, the alerts will be suppressed. Mountain Lion actually looks for clues that the external display you’ve hooked up to is a TV or projector, and if it is, it won’t show any notifications. Because the last thing you want is for a message from one of your friends on Twitter to float over a slide in an important presentation you’re giving.
I’ve found Notification Center to be a useful addition to my Mac. This is the sort of feature that needed to be a part of the operating system for the sake of consistency and ubiquity, and Apple’s done a good job of implementing it. I appreciate being alerted when someone’s sent me a Direct Message on Twitter or when I’ve received an important email, and the settings in the Notification Center control panel are granular enough to allow me to suppress any notifications that get in my way. (In a way, they may be too granular—I wish there was a way to more broadly set notification settings, rather than going app by app.)
Gatekeeper eyes your apps
Ever since Apple introduced the Mac App Store, many people have speculated that it was only a matter of time until the Mac, like iOS, could only run software sold directly via the store.
I never really thought that was a serious possibility, and Mountain Lion seems to clinch it. The new Gatekeeper feature, found in Mountain Lion’s Security & Privacy preference pane, adds an intermediate level of protection between fully-approved App Store apps and random files downloaded from unknown sources over the Internet. It’s Apple’s attempt to bring more iOS-style security to Mac users even if the apps they use are not from the App Store, and it’s a great move.
By default, Mountain Lion will launch newly-downloaded apps from the Mac App Store as well as any apps written by “identified developers” without complaint. Identified developers are members of Apple’s Mac developer program who have obtained a certificate linked to their identity, which they use to cryptographically sign their apps. (Apple doesn’t do any sort of background check on the developer, and it doesn’t approve any of this software. All it means is that Apple knows who the developer who signed the app was—and that gives Apple the ability to revoke the developer’s license if they’re discovered to be a distributor of malware.) The act of cryptographically signing apps also prevents legitimate apps from being tampered with after the fact, since any modified apps will fail the check Mountain Lion performs.
Most people will only run into Gatekeeper when downloading an app that hasn’t been updated with a developer signature. You can turn off Gatekeeper altogether, of course, but you can also choose to open unidentified apps manually: Just control-click on the app in the Finder and choose Open. Gatekeeper won’t stop you.
It’s also important to note that, as the name implies, Gatekeeper is not a system that continually scans your Mac looking for malware. It works only the very first time you try to open an app, using the same system that warns you before you open just about any file that you downloaded from the Internet. Once you give that app entry through the gate and into your Mac, there’s no more security.
Developers have known since February that Gatekeeper was coming; I’d wager that most Mac developers have acquired their certificates and signed their apps. And the ones that haven’t been signed will still run, once you’ve used your own judgment to decide whether you let them through the gate. It’s a sensible strategy that doesn’t leave developers whose apps can’t be in the Mac App Store out in the cold, and most users won’t notice a thing.
Gatekeeper’s not the only security addition to Mountain Lion. The Security & Privacy preference pane’s Privacy tab is now more granular. In addition to control over location-based data (introduced in Lion) and the sending of diagnostic information to Apple, you can also control access to Contacts, Twitter, and Facebook.
Sharing and social services
In an attempt to reduce the amount of steps required to share stuff on your Mac with others, Apple has added a sharing button to most of its apps and provided access to the same sharing functionality for third-party app developers. When you click on the (familiar to iOS users) share button in an app, you’ll see a pop-up menu listing several ways to share the item you’re working with.
Extending the theme of sharing, Apple has integrated Twitter and Facebook, as well as other services including Flickr and Vimeo, throughout Mountain Lion. (I was able to try the Facebook functionality on a demo system loaned to me by Apple; the initial release of Mountain Lion won’t support it, but it’ll be made available in an update sometime this fall.)
In Safari, the Share button lets you post a link to Facebook or Twitter (and in a nice touch, that choice will bring up a “share sheet” where you can compose your own text, rather than sending out a generic pre-formatted message), add a bookmark, send a link via Messages, add the page to Reading List, or send the story via email. (If you choose to send the story via email, you can choose to send a link, the HTML of the page, or a stripped-down view of the page in the style of Safari’s Reader feature.)
You can add your Twitter and Facebook account information in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference. Once that’s done, it becomes easy to quickly share items from just about anywhere via the Share menu or the buttons at the top of the Notification Center list. I was able to post an image to Twitter and Facebook from within Preview, as well as send it to Flickr. I could even transfer it to a nearby Mac via Apple’s AirDrop file-transfer feature, all without leaving my Preview window. You can even choose whether to make your Facebook posts public, just to your friends, or to a limited list of friends.
Twitter and Facebook integration goes beyond that, though. Mountain Lion can sync with your Facebook contacts list, so that all your Facebook friends appear in Contacts. If the denizens of your Contacts list are also your Facebook friends, Mountain Lion will do its best to avoid making duplicate entries. (A few of my friends were duplicated when I tried this, but merging them back into one record wasn’t too hard using the Merge Selected Cards command in Contacts.) Mountain Lion can also optionally update the pictures attached to each of your contacts based on those contacts’ public Facebook profiles, even if they’re not Facebook friends, and can do likewise with Twitter avatars.
A few years ago I tested a Palm WebOS smartphone and was impressed with its attempt to sew my social networks and address book together into a unified collection of contacts. Apple has, up to now, resisted deep integration with services like Twitter and Facebook. The good news is that with Mountain Lion, Twitter is fully integrated and this fall Facebook will finally be likewise. It will be a great convenience for users of these services. (And if you don’t use them, you won’t miss anything.)
Mac, take a memo
Dictation, a feature previously available only on the iPhone 4S and the third-generation iPad, comes to the Mac with Mountain Lion. Mountain Lion’s dictation engine appears to be identical to the one found on iOS, and requires an Internet connection. (Keep in mind that Dictation and Siri are two separate functions. Mountain Lion doesn’t offer Siri.)
Mountain Lion dictation can be used just about anywhere there is a blinking cursor. If you can enter text there, you can dictate text into it—no app updates required. By default, you kick off a dictation session by tapping the Function key twice, although you can customize this to a different keyboard shortcut in the Dictation and Speech (formerly Speech) preference pane. Then you just say what you want to say, and once you’re done, your utterances will be rendered (usually quite accurately) as text.
It’s a great addition. Of course, there are better speech-to-text options available commercially—Nuance offers Dragon Express for $50 and Dragon Dictate for $200. Those programs work on your Mac without an Internet connection and offer voice-training and customizability that Mountain Lion’s dictation feature can’t match. But not everyone who might use Dictation needs that level of customizability.
I’ve never managed to use most dictation products for very long, but I find that I use iOS dictation every now and then when I need it. I look forward to being able to do the same on my Mac with Mountain Lion.