Mountain Lion Review: What Happened To Apple’s Innovation?

Mac OSX Lion seemed unpolished, and, worse, not innovative. When Mountain Lion dropped a couple weeks ago, we were pumped: It was a relatively rapid update, and we hoped it would address our concerns. Hrmph.

Giz Au Editor’s Note: This is a review of the developer’s preview; as such it would be unfair to complain about features with bugs, as those could be ironed out in the full release. What’s been examined are features that are coming in the full release of Mountain Lion and are unlikely to significantly change between now and when it’s released.

I’ve been using Mountain Lion for more than a week now, and I got the same feeling I got from Lion: Scott Forstall — Apple’s own Doctor Moreau — is still pushing for an ungodly desktop/iPad hybrid. This is not the future; it’s a patched up genetic experiment anchored in Apple’s past and present successes.

For all of Mountain Lion’s good new features — and there are a few — the new OS raises a terrifying brace of thoughts: 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. Too afraid to change the world once again, as Steve Jobs used to say, one desktop at a time.

Mountain Lion has the same Finder and the same app-centred approach as its king-of-the-jungle forbear: more of the same gimmicky interfaces full of leather and ripped out pages; more outdated graphic metaphors and unnecessarily cute eye candy. And yes, it has a few good new features, which are useful and welcome, but nothing amazing or innovative. And some of these new good features also have dark sides.

Good new features — loaded with venom

My favourite thing about Mountain Lion is Notifications, a live-updated panel that hides on the right side of your screen. If you have an iPhone or iPad with iOS 5, you know how it works: When a new email, Twitter DM or any other alert comes in, a notification briefly blips onto your screen. After a moment it disappears and gets stored in the Notifications panel. To see the panel, just slide two fingers from the right edge of your trackpad over to the left or click on the little icon that sits in the top right corner of your screen, the latest addition to the endless row of icons in OS X menu bar. (I still remember Steve Jobs commenting on how much he hated this endless icon row back in the Mac OS 8 days — how long until those icons overrun the actual menu items?)

Notifications is a great way to keep track of whatever is important. You can choose which ones you want to receive with the control panel. And in Apple’s Mail app you can star people, so only emails from those starred people appear in the Notifications panel. This functionality could be available in third-party apps as well.

Actually, any third-party app can use the Notifications programming interface — any app that is sold through the App Store, that is. Apple’s not going to miss out on its 30 per cent cut and control over the platform. And why should it? It’s Apple’s platform and service, after all. But it still feels like Don Corleone making an offer devs can’t refuse.

Same deal with iCloud, another good feature that finally gets fully implemented and useful. Any third-party app that wants to use iCloud must go through the App Store. And as with Notifications, Apple is banking on the fact that everyone will want a piece of iCloud action, because it works great (most of the time).

In fact, iCloud is the best aspect of OS X 10.8’s new apps: Messages, Reminders, Contacts, Calendar, Notes and Game Center. They are identical to their iOS counterparts, including the same horrible user interface metaphors that barely make sense anymore on iOS. Why do Apple UX designers still think that the only way to encourage touch control is to mimic real-world surfaces? It’s bad enough on your phone, but it doesn’t make sense at all on OSX: a screen you can’t actually touch. You know: Notes in OS X looks like a yellow legal pad, Game Center sports the same old-Vegas crusty casino feel that seniors will love, Reminders looks like a notebook, and so on.

It’s the antithesis of Jon Ive’s minimalistic design, all essence devoid of artifice. In fact, it goes against everything Apple used to defend when it was king of user interface development: that everything should follow the same language in order to make everything intuitive and familiar to the user. With iOS, Apple backtracked, saying that the application should mimic the real-world item it was to replace. It made a little sense on a phone, but almost none on your desktop. And it opens the door to a fragmented design language that could make the future of Apple design very unappealing.

Bad design aside, there is a silver lining: these apps’ data sync instantly using iCloud. It is incredibly convenient and useful and addictive, even while it’s not perfect (Notes, for example, can’t synchronise photos). It’s also great that Apple has finally caught up to Google’s cloud implementation. And no developer should opt out of this.

In fact, I think this makes Gatekeeper — a new nice security feature — almost unnecessary. Apple says that Gatekeeper is designed to protect you against evil apps: Mountain Lion will require any app to either use an Apple unique identifier or be sold through the App Store. Users can run any other app at their own risk, but Gatekeeper will offer a warning. That will protect — and scare — a lot of newbies, who will be inclined to only use the App Store to download their software. (Even though the App Store is not the safest place anymore.) It’s Apple’s not-so-subtle way of corralling developers into its walled garden. But with iCloud kicking so much arse, it’s unlikely that most people will stray outside the App Store for software anyway.

After iCloud, My other favourite feature is AirPlay Mirroring, which lets you beam anything that can play on your Mac screen to any Apple TV or AirPlay-enabled AV receiver or projector. That includes Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight content, DVD discs, and any other video playback app. So you could see any movie or TV series without having to go through iTunes. I’m actually amazed that Apple did this, since it opens a hole in the walled garden. In fact, I live in fear that this feature won’t be fully available in the final version. After all, Apple doesn’t allow Hulu in Apple TV — not even through Airplay — because it competes against the iTunes store.

Apple says there are over a hundred new features and refinements, like Twitter sharing implemented across all apps. Or Safari’s new unified address bar which, like Google’s Chrome, can now accept search queries and web addresses in the same field.

All Apple apps — and most third-party apps I have — can now run on full screen mode as well, which is good if you have a trackpad. In my Lion review I argued that the lack of full screen apps made the full screen mode useless. Now, except for Photoshop and a few other professional apps that still don’t support full screen mode, you can live in full screen land all of the time.

I really like having my mail take over one screen and Chrome with work-related tabs on another; I have Chrome with for-fun tabs on another, and then a frame full of Reeder a swipe away. It’s so convenient and fast to flip through them. And it helps me to focus on tasks, with the new Notifications acting as a central link to the rest of my activities while I’m zeroing in an article or editing some video. It works. To a (sore) point.

The sore point is the little apps. Why would I want Messages running in full screen mode?

The innovator’s dilemma

And that’s a perfect example of what still feels wrong about Mountain Lion. There has to be a better way to do these things.

Look at Microsoft and Windows 8, with their split screen design: Users can assign a quarter of the screen to another app. It’s a brilliant way to implement full screen apps — which I still think are the perfect way to interact with devices nowadays — without sacrificing the in-your-face, always-available multitasking that some apps — like instant messaging — require. Apple could have taken that route. Or any other route. Instead, it’s either full-screen mode like iOS shoehorned into OS X or a clusterf**k of windows in a separate space.

Workable? Sure. I can make it work. But it’s not ideal — certainly confusing for many users and annoying for others, including myself.

I’m not saying that Microsoft’s approach is the only way to do this, but it is a great and intuitive solution. Which is basically what’s what is wrong with Mountain Lion — and the difference between Apple and Microsoft these days.

Apple — no longer the underdog but the leader — is anchored in its iOS legacy. The former innovator is scared to change its cash cow, even if it’s grazing on user experience principles from Newton and Palm in the 1990s. It just feels like Apple isn’t trying to make things better. Instead, the Cupertino Crew seems happy to just corral everyone — users and developers — into their walled ecosystem using familiar interfaces, convenient services like iCloud, and some gimmicky features.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Obviously, it works well enough for most people. Just like Windows 7 and the old Mac OS X work well enough. But it’s a flawed approach. It’s more of the same. It’s not a path for future growth.

Which is what I was hoping for Mountain Lion: a version that would correct the many flaws of Lion and introduce actual new ideas geared to make both the desktop and iOS better. As it turns out, it seems that this is not in the cards. Apple is happy where it is — just as it was in the 1980s. But, unlike the 1980s, the company’s nemesis is not copying its stuff. It’s breaking new ground.

That’s the most surprising thing about Mountain Lion. Not what Apple did, but that it makes clear a startling reality: Microsoft is the new Apple, thinking of ways to make a better, more productive experience for users. Sure, MS might fail, but at least Redmond is breaking new ground and trying to push computing forward.

Think about that for a second: Mountain Lion is conservative and boring — even gaudy at times. Meanwhile Microsoft is pushing the envelope and being innovative and elegant in its approach to user interfaces.

Image: Terrierman’s Daily Dose

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