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The Mountain Lion Report: Too Quick?

Just as developers and Mac users became accustomed to OS upgrades happening every two years, Apple turned that expectation on its head with Mountain Lion. It’s a return to the early days of Mac OS X, where key features had to be fleshed out, and needed features added, so releases were relatively frequent. As the OS matured, Apple indicated that the pace of releases would slow.

Well, they did for a while, but Apple is, if anything, unpredictable. Think about the expected release of the iPhone 4’s successor last summer, which ended up happening in the fall. Apple even suffered a shortfall in iPhone sales and customers hung out on the sidelines waiting for the upgrade. Of course, when the iPhone 4s appeared, despite all the performance boosts and the arrival of the iconic Siri personal assistant, the media attacked Apple because the case looked the same.

Now until last Thursday, the media and industry analysts expected the next version of Mac OS X, which would carry the version number 10.8, would appear some time in mid-2013, although Apple might offer a preview at this year’s WWDC. I even made the same assumption, but I’m pleased to have been proven wrong.

But the impending arrival of Mountain Lion may be more of a threat rather than a promise to some developers who are still struggling to make their apps Lion savvy. While most recent apps run fine under 10.7, there are episodes of flakiness, and forget about support for key Lion features, such as Auto Save and Versions. Sure, neither is perfect, but they’d sure be nice to have in your favorite apps.

This is not to say that Lion-savvy apps will suddenly become incompatible with Mountain Lion, since it merely expands upon 10.7’s features for the most part. So an app can support Auto Save but not the Notification Center, but that shouldn’t be a serious problem. You can still use Growl for alerts, if the app supports that, or at least that’s my assumption since Growl will evidently continue to be developed.

However, a developer in the midst of a Lion update will certainly want to check the Mountain Lion betas and the newest version of Xcode, Apple’s developer software, and developer documentation of course, to see how much further work needs to be done to cover both bases. Or maybe get the Lion version out now, and deal with Mountain Lion down the road. Between now and Mountain Lion’s release, it’s a virtual lock that Apple will continue to make changes, and developers will be chasing a moving target.

From my look at the prerelease version of Mountain Lion, on which current reports about the new OS are based, it doesn’t look all that different when you give it a casual look. It’s not the same as Microsoft, which has  nasty habit of confounding Windows users with such unrequested features as ribbons and the so-far failed Metro interface without really improving the user experience. Even though Apple has overhauled some system apps to closely resemble their iOS cousins, you aren’t forced to change your ways all that much. Messages, which Lion users can download now as a public beta, gives you the very same Buddy List to which you’re already accustomed in iChat. The preferences appear to be mostly the same. The message window is different, for better or worse, but there’s nothing there that will confuse you.

That Address Book has been rebranded as Contacts only makes sense, and the interface has been cleaned up. No big deal. And looking over the rest of Apple’s “tentpole” changes, it does appear that Apple has either improved usability or left well enough alone. Certainly if you’re accustomed to the iOS way of doing things, moving between mobile and desktop will be smoothed.

So it does seem that Mountain Lion is a more mature upgrade than Lion. You aren’t saddled with such controversial interface changes as reverse (or natural) scrolling, and part-time scrollbars. Forget about Launchpad, although a new search feature does make it slightly more usable. To me, Mountain Lion seems more intuitive overall.

But I do wonder what’s going to happen to the Lion upgrade rate among Mac users. Obviously every new Mac will be preloaded with Lion until Mountain Lion takes over, but how many Mac users are going to buy the current upgrade with yet another OS arriving in a few months? If you haven’t already upgraded to Lion, and don’t plan on buying a new Mac anytime soon, there’s no harm in waiting at this point. You see, it does appear from the preliminary documentation that you’ll be able to install Mountain Lion direct from a Snow Leopard installation. Sure, a number of Macs from 2008 and earlier are no longer supported, but that’s nothing new for Apple. You have to expect this four or five-year window of compatibility. Apple would prefer to sell you a new Mac rather than just an OS upgrade.

But that also means that my son’s early 2008 black MacBook dead ends at Lion. As a result, he’s probably going to ask his dad for a present this summer, I expect, so I better start saving.