The Mountain Lion Report: Did Apple Play it Safe?

July 26th, 2012

While the vast majority of Mountain Lion reviews published Wednesday were highly favorable towards Apple’s latest and greatest OS, and that includes some from PC-oriented publications, there were exceptions.

One notable attack came from Gizmodo, a publication that has shown no love towards Apple, and it puts the differences between Apple and Microsoft front and center. Says reviewer Jesus Diaz, “If Apple doesn’t want Microsoft to steal their innovation crown with Windows 8 Metro, they urgently need a new vision that breaks with this unholy mix of obsolete 1980s user interface heritage and iOS full screen skeumorphism.”

Skeumorphism? Wikipedia defines the word as, “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.”

In suggesting that “Apple has run out of ideas. Or worse, that Apple is too afraid to implement new concepts, fearing it will kill the company’s golden goose,” Diaz feels there must be something wrong with the common sense concept of familiarity. As I’ve said from time to time, if someone accustomed to the first Macintosh in 1984 got into a time machine, traveled to 2012, and tried to work on a MacBook Air running Mountain Lion, that person would have a surprisingly short learning curve. Sure, the desktop is colorful, dimensional, and there are loads of unfamiliar features, at first glance. But the fundamentals of the point and click interface that Apple pioneered then are still very much still in place, and learning to use more than one app at a time will come soon enough.

Contrast that to the layout in Windows 8, where Metro, on the surface at least, disposes of all the conventions that Windows users have grown accustomed to over the years, conventions that, as you realize, were largely “borrowed” from the Mac.

Now I understand the desire to make things better. But what Microsoft has done may be close to building a car without a steering wheel, or brake and accelerator pedal. Sure, you can click, or touch the interface to prowl beneath Metro to see a slimmed down Windows-style interface, but all that does is make for a bi-polar experience, where you can become lost real quickly.

It doesn’t mean that the traditional graphical user interface that has been tried and tested all these years is necessarily perfect. I’m sure many of you can build a large list of how OS X needs to change to improve usability, particularly for tens of millions of customers who discovered Apple by way of the iPhone and iPad. Certainly navigating the file system intimidates many. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t more elements of the iOS that can be integrated into OS X without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

But Apple understands that jarring changes with little or no discernible benefits can just confuse customers. They got justifiably attacked when making changes to the default scroll bar and scrolling behavior in Lion, which is carried over unchanged in Mountain Lion. But they also made it possible to open System Preferences and turn things back. Despite all the iOS elements that made their way into 10.8, it’s still a Mac OS, and, based on what Tim Cook has said in a very emphatic way, it isn’t going to be thrown away in place of a desktop version of iOS.

All right, so Gizmodo’s reviewer maybe wanted to say something different, something controversial, and he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. Mine is simple. The movement from Snow Leopard to Lion wasn’t very jarring. I did revert those minor interface changes. I never use Launchpad, and rarely open Mission Control. My Mac is still a Mac, and the same is true for Mountain Lion.

The Mountain Lion installation should be virtually seamless for most of you whether you upgrade from Snow Leopard or Lion. Expect the installation to take from 20 to 40 minutes for most of you; faster if your Mac uses an SSD. Yes, you’ll be asked to set up iCloud, if you haven’t done so already, but that’s not essential. Yes, Safari will seem a little different at first because of the integrated address/search bar, dubbed Smart Search. Apple is essentially following the scheme originated in Google Chrome, but making it more intuitive.

Yes, Address Book is now Contacts. Yes, iChat is now Messages, and integrates with iMessages in the iOS. Yes, Reminders has been divorced from iCal and renamed Calendar to be consistent with the iOS. The rest of the features will come to you over time. Read a few tips, play around, and you’ll soon just get it. With over 200 new features to spare, you’ll find a rich selection to discover, none of which will make a Mac less of a Mac.

I am particularly fond of Notification Center, a close cousin to the iOS version. It is similar in concept to Growl, a third-party utility that puts up notices when an application needs to send you some sort of announcement. For Mail, I’m alerted about incoming messages.

While Apple apps support Mountain Lion’s Notification Center out of the box, third parties will have to build updated versions of their apps using Apple’s custom APIs. Over time, I expect the need for Growl will largely vanish.

Now it’s supposed to be a given that a new OS X will ship with various and sundry bugs. That may be true, but the early chatter about OS 10.8 is extremely positive. One reviewer who had worked with all of Apple’s developer releases since February remarked this was one of the smoothest beta processes ever. Another said a few weeks back, ahead of the Golden Master release, that he was already using the Mountain Lion betas as his main OS.

For me, Mountain Lion feels noticeably snappier than Lion, sometimes in significant ways. One example is dragging an audio track through the timeline in Amadeus Pro, one of the mission critical apps that I use for post production of my radio shows. The operation is far, far smoother, and that’s a process that really exercises the graphics chips. It’s nice to see a late 2009 iMac suddenly feel like new all over again.

Yes, I suppose some Mountain Lion glitches will come to the fore soon enough. Most of them, however, may be due to third-party app conflicts rather than anything Apple has done wrong. There will be the inevitable 8.0.1 update to address the initial round of bugs. But I feel far more comfortable with Mountain Lion than any previous OS X release, and that’s saying a lot.

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16 Responses to “The Mountain Lion Report: Did Apple Play it Safe?”

  1. dfs says:

    Yes, I was a beta tester and was amazed at how smoothly Mountain Lion runs, I didn’t experience any problems with it and with one minor exception all my software than ran on Lion runs trouble-free on Mountain Lion. The two features I appreciate the most are Notifications (which will become relevant to third-party software once Growl is redesigned to cooperate with it, for the moment you just continue using Growl as you always have) and the new iCloud coordination of iWork files (Apple released a new iCloud-version of iWork today, both OSX and iOS versions, and to my surprise and delight it’s a free upgrade, not a new-number version you have to pay for).

    But there are a couple of problems. At least for me, the automated Store-based Software Update feature doesn’t work well. When I complained about it, an Apple engineer told me that it can take as long as a week to notify users of new updates, which is absurdly long in comparison with the old Software Update program. And there are some updates for which I haven’t received notification even after well over a week has passed. This needs drastic improvement in a future version. The other thing I don’t like is the removal of the Appearance panel from Safari Preferences. Now I am forced to view pages the way Apple wants me to, not the way I myself prefer. Since my eyesight isn’t what it used to be I regard this as a pretty serious issue. Apple is usually handicapped-friendly, it is very strange to see them do something that works against the interest of people like me.

    Anybody who’s really interested in Mountain Lion ought to read John Siracusa’s massively detailed Ars Technica review at

  2. Andrew says:

    My only disappointment with Mountain Lion so far is that Air Play requires a 2011 or newer Mac. This is silly. My MacBook Air (mid 2011) works fine with its slowish Intel graphics, while my 2010 MacBook Pro with powerful discreet nVidia 330 graphics and a modern i7 processor doesn’t make the cut. In every way except disk access (my MBP uses a 7200 RPM HD that is slower than the Air’s SDD) my MacBook Pro is a more powerful machine, so it feels like simply marketing (planned obsolescence) that drew the line at 2011, NOT actual hardware capabilities.

  3. Andrew says:

    If thats the case, then why does the 2011 and 2012 Mac Pro support Air Play and the IDENTICAL 2010 model not?

  4. dfs says:

    A couple of shareware/freeware utilities (Lion Tweaks is one) claim to enable some older Macs to use Air Play (I’ve never tried, so can’t comment on whetrher they work).

  5. DaveD says:

    As always, I’m thankful for those who jumped right in and provided feedback.

    Why do would a tech reviewer from Gizmodo would think that Apple would even listen to him? I feel quite sure Gizmodo is on Apple’s “s” list after reading that they’ve never gotten product invitations after the “stolen” iPhone incident.

    I am continuing to use Snow Leopard for the foreseeable future. Lion was installed on another partition to handle the migration from MobileMe to iCloud. But, I kept Lion up-to-date and installed many apps from the store. Never thought that Lion was that bad. LaunchPad is fine for newbies, but I do see it as a way to access every applications installed. Mission Control is fine. [I prefer “WindowShading” that is functioning quite well in Snow Leopard through a haxie which some have found to be problematic. I installed it when the haxie was first released several years ago and never had any issues. Going to miss it when it comes time to move on.] Natural scrolling is also just fine. I can relate as a movement of a “real” page. I wonder if we will ever see a 10.7.5 update that was mentioned as being seeded to developers awhile back.

    I will install Mountain Lion at a later date as have done with prior upgrades. But, it is good to read the positive reviews. As dfs mentioned about John Siracusa’s encyclopedic piece on his continuing series of OS X releases, I agree that it is well worth the time. I have read his writings beginning with the public beta so may years ago. My how time flies.

  6. dfs says:

    “I wonder if we will ever see a 10.7.5 update that was mentioned as being seeded to developers awhile back.” Apple invited Mountain Lion beta testers to download and test 10.7.5 about 72 hours ago. It’s gonna happen.

  7. Nigel says:

    DaveD – I don’t blame Apple one bit. If your neighbor found your missing dog and tried to sell him instead of just returning him, you wouldn’t invite the guy to your cookouts would you?

    As a perfectly happy Snow Leopard user I resisted getting Lion for a long time. Then I called The Tech Guy and sneaked in at the last 30 seconds of the show to ask Leo’s opinion. He asked me if I had a compelling reason to *not* update. I couldn’t think of one.
    On Lion now, all my fears were completely unfounded, looking forward to getting ML loaded once the rush has passed. It’s still OSX, still spanks Micros**t.

    My prediction: Apple will remove access to the file system in OSX (if it’ll be called that). It’s not happening in Mountain Lion and it may not even be in 10.9, but they *will* do it.
    Geeks and ‘pros’ will panic, the forums will light up like a Christmas tree, and people like my wifey, who does not know that ‘Save As’ exists, will rejoice.

    For some perspective. The iOSification of OSX sounds tough to handle, until you look at the awful ‘Metro’ UI that M$ users are going to have to suffer through for the next few years. Then all is joy.

  8. Sponge says:

    Great article, as usual.

    I’ve felt since Lion’s debut that people were making way too much of the supposed merging of iOS and OS X. As you point out, none of the iOS-like features are forced on me and I use my Mac pretty much the way I always have.

    I also have become fond (in less than 24 hours!) of Notification Center. Useful, configurable, and unobtrusive–one of Apple’s UI features in quite a while. I keep Mail in a separate space from where I do most of my work, and being able to see who an email is from and what it’s about without switching screens makes me wonder how I lived without it.

    But I’m less enamored of the new Safari. I can’t stand the unified address/search bar since it doesn’t know when I start typing whether I’m entering a URL or a search query, and the auto-completion suggestions it offers are therefore less likely to be what I’m entering. I really don’t see how this is an improvement–was a separate search field that confusing? I also don’t like the look of tabs, which now expand to fill the entire space allotted by the browser. While this does allow you to see more (or all) of a page name, it also leaves a lot of blank space to either side of shorter page names, which just looks bad IMO. In addition, I’ve gotten used to being able to quickly close a tab by mousing to the top left which worked well because the tabs were narrow and lined up on the left. Now if I only have two or three tabs open and want to close one, I find myself mousing around to find the close button. So I’m not that thrilled with Safari.

    Overall though I agree with you and others that Mountain Lion has been a painless and worthwhile upgrade, maybe the easiest I’ve ever done.

  9. Mike T. says:

    Smart Search is NOT following a Chrome feature. I believe Palm came out with it for WebOS before anything else…

  10. Usergnome says:

    In response to Nigel. A Mac with no access to the file system is useless to me and to anyone else who attempts to de any sort of real work on a computer. This is what makes iCloud useless. The application must NOT be the gatekeeper for file access. I have documents. I have to do many things to those documents with many different programs in order to produce a finished product. An online depository that insists the file has to saved by Pages or you can’t find it again is a brain dead idea.

    It disturbs me that we have to destroy the tools I use to make a living because Grandma in Peoria can’t understand the files and folders metaphor.

  11. dfs says:

    There’s a trick I’d like you to try, Usergnome. To do this you need the newly upgraded iLife, it won’t work on the iCloud web page (at least yet). Populate the iLife section of your iCloud storage with two or more files. You can see them in your iLife program with that grey-fabric background. But take one file and drag it on top of another. Hey, presto, a folder, which you are now invited to name. Admittedly, the folder doesn’t allow you to do anything but store files. As near as I can see from playing with it a bit, you can’t upload or download entire folders from iCloud and you can’t one folder inside another. But from this experiment we can see that iCloud is a bit more sophisticated than the simple flat-folder scheme it appears to be at first sight, and there’s no reason to think that Apple can’t make it even more so as time goes on, so that you can upload, download, and nest folders just as you do in Finder (even if the moves you make to create and manipulate folders are a little different). And anyway, I’m a hundred percent sure the files/folder metaphor is never going to go away. Reason: the metaphor of files within single or nested folders is permanently enshrined in the structure of URL addresses, and if Apple were to put an end to it they’d lose their footing in the web-design world. I can’t imagine they’d ever be so dumb as to do that.

  12. Tanto says:

    I have just bought the Defense Grid tohrugh the Mac Store. The game hung when I switch my Macbook Pro to high performance mode (running OSX Lion). After searching the internet for solution and I found this site and was told that update for Lion is available. So, I downloaded the update and dragged it to replace the old one.When I click the Defense Grid application again after the update, it asked me to key in the product key. Is there a place where I could find my product key? Will the receipt email to me later include the product key?

  13. Usergnome says:

    Reply to DFS,

    I think you didn’t catch the whole nature of the problem. While it’s nice that you kinda sorta can create folders in iLife that is still very far from a real cloud solution for working. Start with the fact that I don’t use or need iLife apps. They’re fine, just not relevant to my work. So file access that runs thru iLife apps is just non-functional. iDisk wouldn’t set the world on fire… but it worked.

    Then there’s syncing – Calendars, Contacts. Moblle Me wasn’t fabulous but at least I could sync my old and new Apple
    kit. Now I’m SOL on my phone – a 3g, and my spare laptop, a powerbook.

    iCloud represents an ominous trend where Apple creates services that suit corporate goals rather than provide answers to customer needs. In fact I believe it’s the sort of eye-off-the-prize behaviour that creates Zunes.

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