FAQ: Apple reveals more about OS X Mountain Lion

New revelations by Apple leads to more questions, which we try to answer

On Monday, Apple unveiled more details about Mountain Lion, the new OS X operating system now slated to ship next month.

OS X Mountain Lion sports new features, like its Lion predecessor many of them borrowed from the iPhone and iPad, new apps -- ditto -- and the lowest-ever price for an Apple upgrade.

It's no Windows 8: Apple's not tried to stuff two operating systems into one package -- not yet, anyway. Mountain Lion is clearly another small step.

But after Apple fleshed out Mountain Lion at WWDC, it was obvious that questions about its enhancements and improvements remained. So we've fleshed out our Q&A, too.

When can I get my hands on Mountain Lion? July, Apple's said. Our bet: July 25, a week later than last year's Lion. Why then? Because Apple announced this new OS X a week later this year than it did Lion in 2011.

And really, what with Apple's double-secret probation strategy, comparing calendars is as good as you can get without a tap on Tim Cook's phone. If Apple follows past protocol, it will reveal the release date a few days before Mountain Lion hits the Mac App Store.

How much? $19.99, or $10 less than last year's Lion. And like before, the price of one copy gives you the right to install it on all the Macs you personally own.

Businesses and schools, however, must fork over a fee for each Mac by purchasing licenses through their usual channels or the online store.

Where do I get it? Just like Lion, you'll get it through the Mac App Store. There's no word whether Apple will again offer the OS X upgrade on a flash drive, as it did for Lion, largely to quell complaints from customers who relied on slow dial-up connections.

We're betting that the sales of the Lion flash drive was too pathetic to bother repeating.

Can I upgrade to Mountain Lion? If your Mac runs Snow Leopard or Lion, you're likely in luck.

We say "likely" because some systems able to run Snow Leopard, or even Lion, won't handle Mountain Lion.

A list of Mountain-Lion supported Macs can be found here. Make sure your machine is among them before paying your $20.

Can I upgrade directly from Snow Leopard? Yes.

You don't need Lion first, but you will need to update Snow Leopard to the latest version, OS X 10.6.8, which Apple shipped about a month before Lion launched.

To see if you have 10.6.8, select "About this Mac" from the Apple menu. If it's an earlier version, launch "Software Update" from the same menu, then download and install 10.6.8.

My Mac is on the supported list and it meets all the system requirements, but I have Leopard. Do I have to buy Snow Leopard before upgrading to Mountain Lion? Maybe not. If you've subscribed to MobileMe, the online sync and storage service that Apple's dumping at the end of this month, you should have received an email offering a free copy of Snow Leopard.

Hunt it up, or better yet, ask for the freebie by steering to this page and signing in with the Apple ID linked to your MobileMe account. Apple will send you a Snow Leopard installation DVD.

Although the free upgrade was intended to give Leopard users a way to migrate from MobileMe to iCloud -- the latter works only with Snow Leopard and later -- there's nothing keeping you from using it to also upgrade your Mac to Mountain Lion.

How can I get a free copy of Mountain Lion? Buy a new Mac.

As it has in years' past, Apple will give customers who purchased a Lion-equipped Mac a free copy of the Mountain Lion. Eligible Macs must be bought on or after June 11. Any Mac purchased from Apple or an authorized reseller qualifies if it comes with Lion.

Apple will post more information about the program, as well as the necessary form for requesting the free upgrade, on this page when it releases Mountain Lion.

I hated Lion. Will I be happier with Mountain Lion? We don't know. You won't either unless you try it, or someone else does who shares your take on Lion.

Some users detested Lion, saying that it slowed down their Macs, that it didn't offer enough beyond Snow Leopard to justify the effort, that Apple had dumbed down OS X by blending iOS-like elements and apps.

Until Mountain Lion reaches final, we won't know how it stacks up performance-wise, but some of the other criticism of Lion seem tailor-made for Mountain Lion as well.

Like its predecessor, Mountain Lion is an incremental upgrade, not a major overhaul as was, say Leopard. And Apple's continuing to push OS X and iOS closer, adding more apps and features from the latter to the former, including Notes, Reminders and Dictation.

I've heard that Mountain Lion includes Siri, the voice assistant on the iPhone 4S. Is that on the level? Not even close. What Mountain Lion does have, though, is voice-to-text dictation, called -- shock -- Dictation.

Any application that accepts text will automatically sport a Dictation command in the Edit menu to switch on the feature. (You can also tap the Function key twice to enable Dictation.)

According to Apple, Dictation comprehends English, French, German and Japanese.

But if it's similar to the dictation feature on the new iPad -- and many have jumped to that conclusion -- it won't be a true "talk-and-type" speech recognition program like the $200 Dragon Dictate.

On the new iPad, dictation doesn't show the results as you talk, but only after you've finished speaking. At that point, the audio is sent to Apple's servers for analysis and conversion into text. (Apple makes it clear that the iPad must be connected to the Internet to use Dictation.) Apple's servers then shoot the text to the iPad, where it appears in the application.

On a Mac, Dragon Dictate does the processing locally, so it puts the text on the screen as you yammer. But hey, Dictation's free.

Will Mountain Lion automatically install updates? Windows has for ages. Unknown.

Apple has said that the new update mechanism, which is now embedded in the Mac App Store, will automatically download both OS X updates and those for store-bought apps "so they're ready to be installed."

No word, though, on whether those OS X updates will be installed without your intervention. That would be smart; security pros have long argued that the less users have to do, the more likely they're to keep their machines up-to-date.

I'm using Snow Leopard and have no intention of upgrading to either Lion or Mountain Lion. Will I still get updates for my Mac? Probably not. Apple's unspoken -- or at least undocumented -- policy is to stop serving security updates for the current second-oldest edition of OS X once it releases a new version. Last year, for example, Apple patched Leopard, OS X 10.5, for the final time on June 23, 2011, several weeks before 10.7's, or Lion's, debut.

(Apple did deliver several subsequent updates to patch specific components, notably Java, and last month, shipped a security update that disabled older versions of Flash Player. But it has not addressed any system-wide vulnerabilities in almost a year.)

Snow Leopard will probably be treated the same way, meaning that the end of bug fixes for OS X 10.6 is only weeks away.

Will Mountain Lion's Facebook tie-ins be available right away? No. In the fine print on Apple's website, you'll find this: "Facebook integration coming this fall."

That integration, which focuses on synchronizing OS X's Notification Center and Contacts with Facebook activity -- Facebook friends appear in the latter, the new name for Address Book, and any updates they make on the social network appear in Contacts -- will be rolled out later this year.

Most are betting that it will happen when iOS 6 launches, since the mobile operating system also features significant ties to Facebook. iOS 6 and the next iPhone are expected to appear in September or October.

Figure that Apple will issue an update to Mountain Lion in that same timeframe to enable Facebook support.

Speaking of updates ... is Software Update vanishing? Yes, it's been swallowed by the Mac App Store.

Rather than maintain two different upgrade tools -- one for OS X, the other for software bought at the Mac App Store -- Apple has rolled Software Update into the store's Update section. Starting with Mountain Lion, this is where security and feature updates will appear.

Mountain Lion's App Store will notify you when updates are available -- those will appear in the new Notification Center -- and automatically download them in the background.

Why should I upgrade? That's for you to answer, isn't it? At $20, we think Mountain Lion is worth the price, but the complaints about Lion -- and the likelihood that those same people will also gripe about Mountain Lion -- make it impossible to recommend the upgrade to everyone.

On the other hand, the imminent end of security updates for Snow Leopard means that if you don't upgrade to either Lion or Mountain Lion, you're at risk from future malware campaigns. And if there's anything we've learned in the last six months, it's that massive numbers of Macs can be compromised by cyber-criminals.

Like Lion, but even more so, Mountain Lion's biggest selling point is its integration with other Apple hardware via iCloud.

So we continue to believe that the upgrade is most compelling to those who also own an iPhone or iPad, and want a more consistent look-and-feel between their Macs and mobile devices, with more of the same apps on both platforms, and access to the nearly-no-brained sync of iCloud that keeps everything current everywhere.

Any nifty features I should know about? We think Power Nap is one of the most interesting.

If you have a Mac with a SSD (solid-date drive) rather than a traditional platter-based hard disk drive, Power Nap will continue to pull email; sync notes, reminders, and messages; conduct Time Machine backups; and download OS X software updates while it's in "sleep" mode.

The Nap feature kicks in on MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros with Retina -- the two models that come stock with an SSD -- when they're plugged into an outlet or on battery-only power.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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