Apple moves toward digital unity with Mountain Lion

Blending the best of OS X and iOS makes both operating systems better

Apple surprised the tech world last week by pulling the curtain back on its latest desktop/laptop operating system: OS X Mountain Lion. The final version will be released this summer, but the developer preview unveiled on Thursday shows that the upcoming OS picks up where OS X 10.7 -- code-named Lion -- left off. The coming update incorporates even more popular features from iOS, the software which runs the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

The upgrade -- pricing not yet announced -- will be available only as a download from the Mac App Store. Apple won't sell it on disc or on a thumb drive, as it did with earlier versions of OS X. That's a change from past practice and gives Apple another way to showcase its fast-growing App Store.

Another change: Apple execs quietly previewed Mountain Lion first with a select few journalists and bloggers. Their early-bird reports last week led to a sudden tsunami of information about Mountain Lion and what it offers: iOS-like Messages, Reminders, Notifications and Game Center, AirPlay Mirroring, and a new security effort called Gatekeeper.

It was clear with the release of Lion last year that the Mac OS X and iOS feature sets were morphing; this year, that trend continues with Mountain Lion. The big question for users then becomes whether this melding of features works, whether the iOS-inspired apps and processes fit within the context of a desktop operating system.

For better or worse, the future of Apple's desktop OS is full of iOS-esque flourishes, changes that reflect a new Apple way of thinking and indicate where Apple is going.

iCloud integration

The most important element of the new OS is deeper integration with iCloud, the collection of services that stores your data to Apple's servers automatically and then syncs that data across all your devices. On the iPhone and iPad, every photo, document, bookmark, contact -- everything -- gets backed up. And through iCloud, it gets automatically sent to all your Macs/PCs, iPhones or iPads. To put it another way, iCloud shifts the onus of keeping data organized and up to date on multiple devices from the user to the machine. It's invisible. And it just works.

For example, if I see an app I like in the App Store, I can buy it and within a few moments that app is already on my iPhone, my iPads, and my various Macs. When I take a picture on my iPhone, by the time I fire up iPhoto on the Mac, it's already waiting in Photo Stream on all of my devices. iCloud makes living with multiple devices far easier because data is automatically dispensed across them all.

Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook reaffirmed that iCloud is not a strategy with a specific shelf life, but a core part of all future Apple products, just as the Digital Media Hub strategy motivated Apple decisions over last dozen years or so. While iCloud integration on the Mac is not yet as comprehensive as it is in the iDevice lineup, Mountain Lion moves closer to real integration with Apple's online services.

The iCloud focus is apparent right away. After downloading and installing Mountain Lion, an iCloud login/sign up is one of the first things to greet you following a clean install. If you already have an iCloud account, your email, contacts, calendars, FaceTime info, Safari bookmarks and Reading List links are automatically configured. Once the Setup Assistant is complete, a virtual visit to the Mac App Store allows you to easily install any apps you've already bought.

With iCloud and a centralized location for app installs, you can be up and running on a new machine with far less effort than before. (More on this in a minute.)

More details on iCloud

Much of Mountain Lion's iCloud integration isn't new to Apple products, it's just implemented in a more refined way. For instance, updated applications will feature enhanced Open/Save options that now include iCloud. This allows documents created on one device to be automatically available on other devices for editing, viewing, or sharing. Before now, you saved documents on your desktop, then had to upload them to the cloud yourself, then go to the other devices and download them yourself.

Mountain Lion desktop
OS X Mountain Lion looks much like its predecessor, Lion, though there's a new desktop wallpaper.
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