Apple picked a better set of features to borrow from iOS this time around. Mountain Lion, the 10.8 version of Mac OS X, doesn't fix most of the annoyances of its lackluster predecessor Lion but does add some useful tools from its mobile operating system.
The most obvious iOS borrowing in this $19.99 release, Notifications, mimics that software's pull-down list of new items (itself an obvious debt to Google's Android). Like those interfaces, it displays such updates as upcoming appointments, to-do items, previews of new e-mails and mentions of you on Twitter.
But unlike iOS and Android notifications, this only shows news from a subset of your apps — those provided through Apple's Mac App Store. And developers are not in love with the App Store, thanks to "sandboxing" security requirements that can require rewriting or ripping out key features.
Notifications also fails to indicate how many updates hide behind its icon; to see what you missed, you have to click it to display the full list.
Apple drew again from iOS to add a Share button to apps like Safari and the Finder that lets you e-mail a file, tweet out a link or post a photo to Flickr, among other tasks.
The option to integrate Twitter into other apps matches a key feature of last fall's iOS 5. Facebook integration — something touted at Apple's developer conference last month–won't arrive until this fall.
Apple gives its iCloud service prominent play in apps like TextEdit and Preview, where it's your first option to save a document. This marks yet another move by Apple away from the traditional folders-on-a-desktop concept, although not nearly as radical as the Metro interface in Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 (which I think goes way too far in imitating mobile software). Pity iCloud's utility as a storage service stops once you walk away from Apple's devices.
Mountain Lion's Dictation feature seems neat and apparently works for other people, but it often garbled my speech. (It heard "seems neat" as "seems me.") It also requires uploading your input to Apple's servers for transcription, which takes a few seconds and fails when you're offline.
Security — a topic on Mac users' minds since this spring's Flashback trojan — gets stronger with a default Gatekeeper setting to block applications that haven't at least been signed with a developer's Apple-issued digital certificate, plus under-the-hood defenses against common attacks. But the firewall remains inexplicably off by default; turn it on in the System Preferences app's Security & Privacy pane.
Mountain Lion — available only through the Mac App Store as a 4.3-gigabyte download — installed in 17 minutes on a new MacBook Air, but took more than an hour on a 2009-vintage iMac. If you're requesting a free copy for a new Mac through Apple's "Up-to-Date" program, don't expect instant gratification; my certificate arrived 34 hours later.
I don't know that either computer feels significantly faster, but I do know that the laptop's battery has twice expired an hour earlier than it did under Lion in my usual test of playing iTunes until the machine shuts down. It's also odd that while a Canon printer/scanner still works on the iMac, the laptop can't even seem to detect it.
The notification, sharing and security features, plus other, smaller tweaks, make Mountain Lion a worthwhile upgrade. But if Apple had also used this opportunity to undo its mistakes in Lion — like vanishing scroll bars and hiding the Library folder that holds a chunk of your data–I'd be okay paying the traditional $129 price for a new OS X release.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery