thoughts on OS X Mountain Lion

(This post originally started out as a preview to Apple’s latest version of OS X. However, after writing about 500 words, I realized that making a post about Mountain Lion that basically reiterates the same topics discussed by the numerous tech blogs in existence would be redundant and boring. So, I’ve scrapped that idea, and have decided to talk about my thoughts on Mountain Lion as well as some advice on whether or not you should buy it once it’s actually released. And what better place to do this than on my personal blog, which I use for actual writing. So, here we go:)

I hate Mountain Lion.

Ok, “hate” might be too harsh of a word, especially with those emphasizing italics. And, to be truthful, there are a few, decent new things in 10.8. But, there’s nothing innovative or cool enough to call this a major release (as some tech sites have). It’s rather boring, quite honestly.

And before you freak out and say I’m an Apple hater or fanboy of some different OS, I’ll have you know that i’m typing out this lovely rant on a Mid-’09 MBP and i’ve been in love with Mac OS X since I first used Tiger in a graphic arts class. Since I’ve got that cleared up for you, let’s talk about the added features in Mountain Lion.

Messages: A Barely Updated iChat

Messages is essentially the latest version of iChat and it’s available for Lion users as a beta. Aside from a UI change to make it look just like the iPad app, the only other new feature is iMessage. Sure, this can all seem pretty great for the people who are deeply integrated into Apple’s ecosystem and have all of their friends in there as well. However, not everyone uses an iPhone or a Mac.

This new feature isn’t smart or useful. Using iMessage on a Mac is like using a Gmail account to only email people with a Gmail account. If iMessage were an open standard and was available to Android, WP7, and even Blackberry users, then users would have an excellent cross-platform messaging service available on any type of computing device.

“Oh wait! This already exists; I think it’s called Skype?”

Yes, informed reader, you are correct! Skype is already a cross-platform instant messaging service that on nearly any device you can think of and offers video chat over WiFi and 3G (unlike FaceTime). Google+, which no one seems to use, manages to have even better features than Skype, like a group video chat option, which is available for free on iOS, Android, and any modern computer.

The point is: the new Messages app isn’t that exciting. If I wanted to talk to just a specific set of people, I’d use Google+. If I wanted to talk to a greater amount of people via video or text, I’d use Skype. If I wanted to talk to just about to just about anyone, I’d use a phone. This is barely a headline feature.

The iPadification Continues (however poorly)

Apple’s current strategy involves taking the features they introduced with iOS and bringing them back to the Mac. It’s not a bad strategy; I mean, this seems like a great way to get more customers to use Macs. The problem is the porting of said features. Every app they added from iOS, whether it be Notification Center, Game Center, Notes, Reminders, or Messages, is still as feature-less and unexciting as the iOS versions. Notification Center doesn’t have any cool widgets baked in. (Actually, if Apple put some Dashboard widgets into the Notification Center, I’d be pretty joyous. It would bring some brilliant functionality to the platform a la the Windows Sidebar.) Notes and Reminders are rather barebones. And Game Center is still useless to me.

I mean, if the tagline for this product is “Inspired by iPad. Re-imagined for Mac,” then Apple should put decent effort into making the iPad apps a little more exciting. Maybe combine Notes and Reminders into a single app considering their function is very similar. Maybe Apple should bring iBooks and Newsstand over to the Mac and just call it Reader or iRead. Having a solid reading application instead of the little, nearly useless apps they’ve added in this version would be almost enough for me to like Mountain Lion. But so far that’s not happening. With Apple half-baking this whole iPadification thing (and not even bringing over the cool icons!), I feel like users are just being left with a crumb of iPad influence, and it won’t be enough to convert Windows users to join the Mac side of life. It’s like eating a hot fudge sundae that only consists of sprinkles. You’re getting an ingredient that’s part of the recipe, but it’s just not enough to satisfy.

The Skeuomorphism Gives Me a Headache

Skeuomorphism sounds like a rather gross disease, but in actuality it’s the term used to decribe objects that imitate older objects but by using different materials, such as fake woodgrain in cars or the flame-shaped light bulbs on chandeliers. In real life, it can been sometimes tacky and sometimes cute, but it just matters on your perspective, I guess. For Apple’s Scott Forstall (and other lead software designers within the company), skeuomorphism seems to be the way of the future. After coating iCal in leather and converting Address Book into an actual book in OS X Lion, Apple wants morph all the apps. The newly added Game Center, Reminders, and Notes all have the same physical feel to them as their iOS counterparts. Game Center has a green felt background with wood adorning the title bar, Reminders looks like a leather notepad, while Notes reminds me of a tiny notepad typically used for a quick note or scribble.

While this can be cute and all to some people, there are some major issues with skeuomorphic design in OS X. For younger generations using Macs, there’s the issue that this design may not make sense to them, as they’ve never used the physical representations of these objects. For example, I have personally never used a leather-bound calendar, and the last time I used an address book was in 7th grade, a few years before I owned a mobile phone. Younger kids (I’m 19, btw) probably won’t have used either of these objects in their lifetime, so why design a digital application in a way to make it look like the archaic physical object it’s replacing? It makes no sense.

The other major issue with this is that skeumorphic UI design goes against Apple’s entire design philosophy, on both the hardware and software sides of Apple. On the software side, everything from Leopard on has strived to maintain a very minimal and consistent interface. Every built-in Apple program has had the same grey title bar and the same minimal icons. And on the hardware side of Apple, Jony Ive has designed every Apple product in the past 15 (or so) years while keeping everything strictly minimal. As I type these very words, I’m taking note of the striking minimalism of my MacBook Pro. Everything from the keyboard to the screen to the touchpad is just simply fantastic. Then, looking at the screen, I see the simplicity of Safari’s chrome sitting at the top of my screen, still in unity with the hardware. An easy three-finger swipe to the left brings me to the three unnecessarily skeuomorphic apps previously stated above, and it just kills the cohesion of hardware and software.

It’s just bloody disappointing to see these atrociously designed applications headlining the features of a new version of OS X. Honestly where is Apple going with this? Is the Dictionary going to look like the physical dictionary shown in the app’s icon? Will the next major version of iTunes look like a jukebox? What if Apple brings this design ethos to their hardware? Will the next iMac look like the iMac G3, albeit with and LCD screen and a completely hollow back end to mimic the CRT monitors of the 90s? This stupidity needs to stop.

A Minor Point: The Fonts

I won’t spend too much of your time on this little point, but I having the slightest problem with the fonts. Because Apple is effectively porting the new apps from iOS, many of their elements still rely on Helvetica (that’s the font you’re seeing on this page) instead of Lucida Grande, Apple’s default system font. (For all you Windows or Linux users, it’s the same font you see on any Facebook page. I’m a bit of a font nerd.) I really wish Apple would just stick to using one font, preferably Helvetica, as it keeps the entire GUI cohesive. But again, this is a minor issue that doesn’t actually affect my opinion of Mountain Lion in a major way.

Ok, There is Some Good Stuff in Here

Despite my excessive ranting, I will admit there’s some nice new features I actually enjoy in Mountain Lion. If you use Safari, you’ll be impressed by the new URL bar which mimics Chrome’s Omnibox by bringing you integrated search and URL input in one place. Tabs are now full-width, allowing you to easily view the title of each page more easily. Share sheets are also integrated into the browser.

Oh! Share sheets are pretty cool, too, allowing you to share anything from the browser or Photo Booth instantly. (I’m sure there will be an API allowing third-party apps to use this functionality.) And you can instantly share things to Twitter as well, which is now baked into the core of OS X. In addition to sharing things through the share sheets, you’ll also be notified of any mentions or DMs directly through the Notification Center.

But perhaps the best feature in Mountain Lion is AirPlay mirroring. This feature on iPad is already pretty cool, but having this feature on the Mac is incredibly useful. In order to use this feature though, you have to own an Apple TV, which isn’t too much of a problem now considering it now supports 1080p. All previous talk about how Apple TV only supports Apple-approved codecs is now null and void thanks to AirPlay mirroring.

Overall, It’s Still A Disappointment

At the end of the day, OS X Mountain Lion is just feature-less, unexciting OS upgrade that will leave you wanting more. It simply symbolizes everything that is wrong with Apple at the moment: a constant control to keep you inside its walled garden (seen with iCloud, iMessage, and Gatekeeper), a oversimplification of applications to cater to even the least tech-savvy consumers, and, worst of all, a lack of innovation that Apple has been known for in everything else they’ve done over the past few years. You shouldn’t be excited for this release. And if you are, you must be deeply confined in the Apple ecosystem with no idea of the competition’s recent innovations. Also, considering Mountain Lion is the first in a series of yearly OS updates from Apple, does this mean that each new upgrade is going to have a smaller feature set due to less time to develop the upgrades? Or is this lackluster upgrade just paving the way to a monumentally huge and innovative OS XI, where iOS and OS X will merge in perfect harmony? Hopefully, the latter is true.

So AJ, should I upgrade?

Well, this all depends on how deeply integrated you are in the ecosystem. If you and all your friends all own iPhones, you’re a pretty big user of iCloud, and you use many of Apple’s integrated apps, then you should probably go ahead and get it. For the rest of you, don’t buy it. It’s not worth it. AirPlay almost changed my decision during the course of this rant, but then I realized spending $99 on an Apple TV still isn’t worth it unless you don’t already own a Smart TV, Xbox, PS3, Roku box, Boxee box, Comcast cable box, or other video-providing service. Considering I just plug in my computer to an HDMI cable that cost me $25, I don’t see myself buying a box that would allow me to do the same thing, only “wirelessly.”

But seriously, don’t buy Mountain Lion. K?

3 thoughts on “thoughts on OS X Mountain Lion

  1. Pingback: five minutes with the new MacBook Pro | ajb

  2. Spot on. I have been using ML for 2 days and already started to hate it. My apps don’t work properly and no X11. If it was a free upgrade I’d pass.

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