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The Mountain Lion Report: Did Apple Play it Safe?

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.