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Just When You Thought Apple Ran Out of Cats

Apple continues to defy conventional wisdom. On Thursday morning, just when Mac users were still getting accustomed to OS 10.7 Lion, Apple unleashed yet another cat, OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. But unlike previous versions of Mac OS X — which is now officially OS X (Mac is not in the versioning or branding of the new OS) — there was no special media event to herald the forthcoming release.

Instead, Apple installed pre-release versions of Mountain Lion onto MacBook Airs and judiciously distributed them to certain members of the media, with the proviso that they not reveal any information until Thursday’s announcement. Tim Cook also gave an interview opportunity to the Wall Street Journal. Quite a difference from the way such releases were handled in the recent past under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

Yes, there has already been plenty of coverage about all the nooks and crannies of Mountain Lion and, of course, you can take a quick tour at Apple’s site. But much of what you’ll see can be summed up in a single phrase: the iOS-ification of the Mac continues. Take out an iPad running iOS 5 and you’ll see most of the major features Apple has revealed. There will be others of course, to fulfill the promise of 100 plus.

For example, Messages replaces iChat, combining the previous features of the venerable OS X app, FaceTime support, and integration with the iMessages texting feature from iOS 5. A renamed Contacts app replaces Address Book, and you will use Reminders rather than iCal to send yourself and your contacts alerts about events and meetings.

One feature that might be a tad controversial for developers is Gatekeeper. It’s part of the new Security & Privacy preference pane, and affords extra protection against the most common — and one of the few — types of Mac malware these days, the Trojan Horse app. There will be two settings to keep you from downloading one of those things by mistake and perhaps compromising your Mac. The first limits the installation and opening of apps to those you download from the Mac App Store. The second, which appears to be the default, adds an “identified developers” category. This one requires that developers, when signing up for Apple’s developer program, apply for a developer ID, which creates a certificate that becomes part of their apps. If the app contains malware, the certificate can be revoked and the developer drummed out of the program. If that certificate isn’t present, or is no longer in effect, the app won’t open unless you follow a bypass feature I’ll get too shortly. The third option lets you run any app, same as now.

According to published reports, protection is limited to the initial installation and first launch. If right or control-click the app, you’ll be able to open or install ones that would otherwise be blocked. From there on, those apps will run without any further interruption. But I wonder how this security scheme will work if you’re not online and Apple’s servers can’t be contacted to identify a valid developer certificate.

All in all, Gatekeeper seems to be a good idea, though I suspect developers who keep their apps on their own sites and not in the Mac App Store — often because Apple won’t accept apps with complex installations or which modify system capabilities — may feel left out. They will, at the very least, want to make sure they get that developer ID and update their apps accordingly. Otherwise Mac users, particularly those new to the platform, may never discover those treasures, or abandon them when they don’t install or open without an extra step. I suppose we’ll have to see how it all works out.

There’s also a new Notification Center that’s extremely close to the iOS counterpart. It will provide notices of events, messages, email and so on evidently on the upper right of your Mac’s display. A System Preferences option will let you configure Notification Center separately for each supported app, again in the same way that it’s done in the iOS. Since Apple will provide APIs for developers to add many Mountain Lion features, you have to wonder the fate of Growl, a third-party notification manager that’s currently supported by loads of third-party apps.

The Mountain Lion Game Center will allow you to share your gaming experience with friends and across Apple products. Over time, you will also likely see larger numbers of iOS games being ported to the Mac, which means you can start a game on your iPad, continue playing in your iPhone, and get to the finish line on your Mac. The Mac version of Game Center may indeed be the magic bullet to really grow the gaming market on the platform.

There will be system-wide integration with Twitter, an enhanced iCloud with document sharing capabilities, and a lot more goodies. I suppose people who have ranted about Lion and the initial foray into iOS integration won’t be impressed, but since you’ll still be able to do most things on your Mac in the same fashion as you can now — except for the revised Apple apps of course — I fail to see that as a huge problem. Well, except for all those developers, such as Adobe and Microsoft, who still still haven’t released Lion savvy stuff.

Mountain Lion is scheduled for release in the “late summer,” and will be available as a download from the Mac App Store. While the price wasn’t announced, I’d be surprised to see Apple changing the current $29.99 rate. And, of course, you won’t get a cheap upgrade from Lion. Apple doesn’t do that.

Now some might suggest Apple rushed Mountain Lion to trump Microsoft and the promised integration of Windows 8 with desktop PCs and tablets. But it may be part of a larger goal, which is to resume annual OS X upgrades. That will certainly keep developers busy, and you can expect that the differences between the Mac and the iOS will continue to lessen.

I do wonder whether Mac OS 11 will move away from feline names and maybe focus on another animal. Canines perhaps? How about OS XI Bulldog?