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as its king-of-the-jungle forbear: more of the same gimmicky interfaces full of leather and ripped out pages; more outdated graphic metaphors and unnecessarily cute eye candy.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


    Reviewing a developer beta?


      Dev's beta is more about troubleshooting and 3rd party application integration than Apple attaining feedback on features and design.

      And besides, Apple can take this a critique, because the criticisms in this 'pre-review' are valid.

    errr: "Sure, MS might fail, but at least Redmond is breaking new ground and trying to push computing forward."

    I don't understand how one can move forward and also fail at the same time.

      Really? By innovating, there is a risk of failure - eg. it could be a great IDEA, but in reality it might not be the most feasible option due to price, and therefore not successful commercially... or whatever.

      Misguided intent, poor execution, etc. While innovating is nice, there is always the chance it'll fall on its face. Hence why Google typically has a dozen beta projects at any one time with a small handful becoming true success stories.

      Does the idea of "Finding 100 ways not to do something." ring any bells?

    "it makes clear a startling reality: Microsoft is the new Apple, thinking of ways to make a better, more productive experience for users...
    ... 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 interface."

    It took me about two minutes with Zune to see that, around 18 months ago. Apple's other problem is that they are like opposition parties in parliament - they have this belief that they can't agree with anything the other party is doing, even if they are doing it better. i.e. Being different is more important to them than being better.

    I'm not so sure about full-screen applications. Sometimes it is good but for utility-type things, or apps, I'm fine with little windows.

      sorry can't stop laughing at this..... microsoft making things better. LOL!

        me either - im laughing with happiness, that Microsoft ARE making things better

      I absolutely love Zune (on my work PC). I would ditch itunes for it in a heartbeat if it looked and worked as good on a mac. Unfortunately they don't have it on mac :(

      He actually said that?

      I guess that confirms my suspicion that Jesus Diaz is hired as a sensationalist/troll writer. Just... Wow.

        Interested to hear what your actual issue with the story is.

          He's basically saying that Windows 8, which currently only exists to us as a nigh-unusable developer preview, is amazingly better than a developer beta simply based on the fact that it's not completely new.

          If he had, say, a GM and a consumer preview I'd say fair enough, but instead it's all hypothetical.

            What are you talking about? The Win8 Dev Preview is perfectly functional. I used it on daily basis for over a month and since then my mate has been using it as his only OS. Shutting down is a bit fiddly but it works great.

    To be fair it's barely a development beta, it's Lion re-branded as a new OS because they have packaged a few apps with it.

      That people will pay for all over again.

    I agree with some of your gripes such as fullscreen silliness and other things but I disagree with your overall conclusions. Snow Leopard -> Lion -> Mountain Lion is a progression from boring OS similar to what we have had since the 90's into the next generation of ergonomics, usability, and power. iOS taught Apple how to be efficient and ergonomic and ultimately usable. The phone form factor demands it. A child can pick one up and use it. Why not take these lessons learnt and making a connected iOS MacOS experience? Windows are also doing this with their metro UI. As for the real world textures.. I like them. The new Lion calendar looks nice just sitting there on my 2nd monitor. Its very friendly looking. I believe we should ultimately see a gradual transformation of complexity from the iPhone -> iPad -> Mac that aligns with increased screen real estate. This is what we are finally starting to see and I'm liking it.

      I don't see that at all. It seems to me that they have taken Snow Leopard and bolted a few things to it in an effort to make it more compatible with iOS. Its the worst possible way to try and keep up. As MS eventually discovered with Win95-98-Me,you paint yourself into a corner.MS were lucky because they had NT to fall back on but Apple are going to have to pull out something big to compete with Win8, and this definitely ain't it. If Nokia can start to get some traction for WinPhone7, Apple could be in a bad situation before too long.

    Who cares. Isn't Mountain Lion only meant to be a small update with some new features? It's not meant to be a whole new ground breaking innovating new UI.
    It's just a small updated with some new features... and that's exactly what it's intended to be, so leave it at that.

      Absolutely. Small update...taking advantage of changes in user experience. Not sure whether they might be backing themselves into a corner though...

    I love how all the new things that you like are basically ripped from android. LOL

    What happened to Apple's innovation? They realised they could take what they already have, make 2-3 changes and then market the shit out of that product. AND IT WORKS!

    A very self centered, short sighted 'review'. It's clear that Apple and Microsoft have both set a path for a more interactive, immersive computing experience that deeply integrates touch. What we're seeing now is the transition to the goal of multi user, multi touch, hi resolution, fully connected, seamless backups, gestures, voice, eye tracking, movement etc. These are immensely different interactions that require radical re-tooling and to get there we're going to have to deal with awkward teenager-like experiences. It's a mammoth task and requires slowly re-training users along the way. Give it a few years for all the apps to be re-written and the hardware to develop. It's still very early days.

    what a crock of shit... isn't this the same douchebag in trouble with Apple??? and then he writes what the future isn't??


    when's Google going to sue Apple over their blatant rip off of the notification bar/ panel?

    Interesting article, for once my knee-jerk "kill jesus" reaction has quieted down a bit heh
    It'll be interesting to see how this develops, especially for business users. All the pretty interfaces are great for the average joe, but for someone who's trying to get a productive workflow going it's Snow Leopard that's #1. Pity iCloud and the mobileme turnover only works with Lion...

    Idiots like this editor is the living the proof why apple is the only company that innovates, their target segment is not geeks and critics, but the people who actually use the devices on a daily basis for getting specific work done.

    Drastic changes are never too good, incremental changes that keep the experience familiar yet change a lot under covers (iCloud) is the kind of innovation that'll work with coon people

      SO so many people I know have it off.

    "iOS taught Apple how to be efficient and ergonomic and ultimately usable." Really? Then how come they didn't use any of that knowledge on iOS? I think OS X is way better than iOS. Phone OSes are just too restrictive and dumbed down.

    You'll find that cloud syncing and the notification bar has been in Ubuntu for quite a while. The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

    TBH I'm looking forward to it. It so far doesn't seem like a major release, but I doubt it'll cost any more than Lion did and it's coming just 12 months after the last OS, so I didn't and don't expect big jumps.

    With that said, given I own an iPhone and iPad I think the greater integration of iCloud will genuinely offer me some benefits. I appreciate these apps could probably have all been packaged up individually and put on the App store rather than coming as an OS update, but to me thats just a question about delivery expectations. If they had thrown it all on the App store as individual downloads, I'd probably have downloaded a fair few of the upgraded apps anyway.

    So for me it's a win. Not an exciting release, nor a big one, but a handy none the less. I can appreciate that there so far is very very little for those that do not need the iCloud integration, and I can see Android/WP7 owners receiving far less benefit from the update.

    Critiquing a first release, developers beta is like kicking an infant because it can't walk. Apples major flaw has been its gaping lack of integration across its platforms, and when they finally do, you complain? Somebody's afraid of something different. I have been saying for years that Apple was bad at supporting its own products on the Mac. Its not meant to be a total rewrite, it's an evolving ecosystem now. If you don't like it, wait three years like like every other OS release.

    I just hope that the new OS won't slow down my Air.

    May I just say when lion came out it was the worst OS they have made in recent times. I hated it, broke my programs, crashed my computers, ran slow. Upgraded to mt lion and my Mac now runs flawless now. I'll take this preview over a finalized version of lion anytime. In my opinion mt lion is just a service pack that makes lion finally work right.. Without Steve apple will soon fail to innovate and fail all together.

      I agree with FanBoi.
      Mountain Lion fixes all of the shit that Lion brought, and also adds a bunch of useful things. Average users who write some notes on their iPad, get home, and its on their computer. Why the hell should the interface be different? It's the same frigging program. Its a minor update but makes my mac SO much better. Lion should not have come with the crap, but it did. ML fixes it.

      Windows? Lol. Microsoft IS the NEW Apple, and they have always been it. Non-Innovative. Basically, computing is screwed. Windows 8 is not innovation, its shit. Mountain Lion is a minor improvement, so it will be interesting to see where Apple takes it next.

    Great article. I agree. Looks like you threw the Apple fanboys for a loop.

    I think apple is trying to sell more macs by making it like iOS so that they can attract more iPad and iPhone users. I also hope the lack of innovation in software they will compensate with hardware. So I am expecting a big changes in macbook pros or airs, maybe the new intel processors, new body design, new retina screens= new graphics.. which needs a capable OS to run things smooth. So I think, keeping the new hardware running smooth is the key apple are seeking out with minor updates to keep people with old hardware interested.

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    The issue here is hardware. The iPad is a huge success - how do you cross-sell Macs to iPad users? If the Mac OS and iOs are significantly different, the iPad user might as well use iOs and Windows/Linux etc. If they are similar, the lower the threshold to cross selling.
    Secondly, for Mac & iOs users, integration is the key. Apple's philosophy has been (forever) that things should 'just work' together - hence the 'closed' system. iCloud worked well on iOS but poorly on Mac OS Lion; the significant upgrade here is integration of iCloud into the Mac OS. Having diverse ways of using iCloud or other features (personally, I have wanted an OS level, iCloud enabled, Reminders function for some time) across platforms made no sense.
    So, ML may be a consolidation rather than a huge leap forward (hence the accusation of conservatism) but it is (i) inexpensive and (ii) tidies up a few loose ends. Certainly, the 'new' features in ML might be merely imports from iOS but they pick the best bits and integrate them.
    The fact remains that because Mac OS (&iOS) are closed - integrated - platforms, the way that the features work is less 'niggly' than open platforms such as Windows etc. The key philosophy that the features should be generally incorporated at OS level does mean that the hardware 'just works'. I don;t think Apple can be criticised for sticking to its core philosophy in that.
    Finally, there is a risk that Apple - having made breathtaking profits - is now the 'establishment' and will be reluctant to undermine its huge profits due to shareholder interest. Sadly, the law of diminishing returns imposes conservatism on any company that becomes a huge success as the dividend per share price will inevitably fall. However, slower innovation might also make Apple more attractive to businesses with slower changes and therefore more ability to make long term IT plans.

    The only feature I'm looking forward to are Airplay mirroring.

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