Thursday, 16 February 2012
“We’re starting to do some things differently,” Phil Schiller said to me.
We were sitting in a comfortable hotel suite in Manhattan just over a week ago. I’d been summoned a few days earlier by Apple PR with the offer of a private “product briefing”. I had no idea heading into the meeting what it was about. I had no idea how it would be conducted. This was new territory for me, and I think, for Apple.
I knew it wasn’t about the iPad 3 — that would get a full-force press event in California. Perhaps new retina display MacBooks, I thought. But that was just a wild guess, and it was wrong. It was about Mac OS X — or, as Apple now calls it almost everywhere, OS X. The meeting was structured and conducted very much like an Apple product announcement event. But instead of an auditorium with a stage and theater seating, it was simply with a couch, a chair, an iMac, and an Apple TV hooked up to a Sony HDTV. And instead of a room full of writers, journalists, and analysts, it was just me, Schiller, and two others from Apple — Brian Croll from product marketing and Bill Evans from PR. (From the outside, at least in my own experience, Apple’s product marketing and PR people are so well-coordinated that it’s hard to discern the difference between the two.)
Handshakes, a few pleasantries, good hot coffee, and then, well, then I got an Apple press event for one. Keynote slides that would have looked perfect had they been projected on stage at Moscone West or the Yerba Buena Center, but instead were shown on a big iMac on a coffee table in front of us. A presentation that started with the day’s focus (“We wanted you here today to talk about OS X”) and a review of the Mac’s success over the past few years (5.2 million Macs sold last quarter; 23 (soon to be 24) consecutive quarters of sales growth exceeding the overall PC industry; tremendous uptake among Mac users of the Mac App Store and the rapid adoption of Lion).
And then the reveal: Mac OS X — sorry, OS X — is going on an iOS-esque one-major-update-per-year development schedule. This year’s update is scheduled for release in the summer, and is ready for a developer preview release. Its name is Mountain Lion.
There are many new features, I’m told, but today they’re going to focus on telling me about ten of them. , I keep thinking. Just like with Lion, Mountain Lion is evolving in the direction of the iPad. But, just as with Lion last year, it’s about sharing ideas and concepts with iOS, not sharing the exact same interaction design or code. The words “Windows” and “Microsoft” are never mentioned, but the insinuation is clear: Apple sees a fundamental difference between software for the keyboard-and-mouse-pointer Mac and that for the touchscreen iPad. Mountain Lion is not a step towards a single OS that powers both the Mac and iPad, but rather another in a series of steps toward defining a set of shared concepts, styles, and principles between two fundamentally distinct OSes.
Major new features
iCloud, with an iOS-style easy signup process upon first turning on a new Mac or first logging into a new user account. Mountain Lion wants you to have an iCloud account.
iCloud document storage, and the biggest change to Open and Save dialog boxes in the 28-year history of the Mac. Mac App Store apps effectively have two modes for opening/saving documents: iCloud or the traditional local hierarchical file system. The traditional way is mostly unchanged from Lion (and, really, from all previous versions of Mac OS X). The iCloud way is visually distinctive: it looks like the iPad springboard — linen background, iOS-style one-level-only drag-one-on-top-of-another-to-create-one “folders”. It’s not a replacement of traditional Mac file management and organization. It’s a radically simplified alternative.
Apps have been renamed for cross-OS consistency. iChat is now Messages; iCal is now Calendar; Address Book is now Contacts. Missing apps have been added: Reminders and Notes look like Mac versions of their iOS counterparts. Now that these apps exist for the Mac, to-dos have been removed from Calendar and notes have been removed from Mail, leaving Calendar to simply handle calendaring and Mail to handle email.
The recurring theme: Apple is fighting against cruft — inconsistencies and oddities that have accumulated over the years, which made sense at one point but no longer — like managing to-dos in iCal (because CalDAV was being used to sync them to a server) or notes in Mail (because IMAP was the syncing back-end). The changes and additions in Mountain Lion are in a consistent vein: making things simpler and more obvious, closer to how things be rather than simply how they always have been.
Schiller has no notes. He is every bit as articulate, precise, and rehearsed as he is for major on-stage events. He knows the slide deck stone cold. It strikes me that I have spoken in front of a thousand people but I’ve never been as well-prepared for a presentation as Schiller is for this one-on-one meeting. (Note to self: I should be that rehearsed.)
This is an awful lot of effort and attention in order to brief what I’m guessing is a list of a dozen or two writers and journalists. It’s Phil Schiller, spending an entire week on the East Coast, repeating this presentation over and over to a series of audiences of one. There was no less effort put into the preparation of this presentation than there would have been if it had been the WWDC keynote address.
What do I think so far, Schiller asks. It all seems rather obvious now that I’ve seen it — and I mean in a good way. I remain convinced that iCloud is exactly what Steve Jobs said it was: the cornerstone of everything Apple does for the next decade. So of course it makes sense to bring iCloud to the Mac in a big way. Simplified document storage, iMessage, Notification Center, synced Notes and Reminders — all of these things are part of iCloud. It’s all a step toward making your Mac just another device managed in your iCloud account. Look at your iPad and think about the features it has that would work well, for a lot of people, if they were on the Mac. That’s Mountain Lion — and probably a good way to predict the future of the continuing parallel evolution of iOS and OS X.
But , I say, waving around at the room, this feels a little odd. I’m getting the presentation from an Apple announcement event without the event. I’ve already been told that I’ll be going home with an early developer preview release of Mountain Lion. I’ve never been at a meeting like this, and I’ve never heard of Apple seeding writers with an as-yet-unannounced major update to an operating system. Apple is not exactly known for sharing details of as-yet-unannounced products, even if only just one week in advance. Why not hold an event to announce Mountain Lion — or make the announcement on apple.com before talking to us?
That’s when Schiller tells me they’re doing some things differently now.
I wonder immediately about that “now”. I don’t press, because I find the question that immediately sprang to mind uncomfortable. And some things remain unchanged: Apple executives explain what they want to explain, and they explain nothing more.
My gut feeling though, is this. Apple didn’t want to hold an event to announce Mountain Lion because those press events are precious. They just used one for the iBooks/education thing, and they’re almost certainly on the cusp of holding a major one for the iPad. They don’t want to wait to release the Mountain Lion preview because they want to give Mac developers months of time to adopt new APIs and to help Apple shake out bugs. So: an announcement without an event. But they don’t want Mountain Lion to go unheralded. They are keenly aware that many observers suspect or at least worry that the Mac is on the wane, relegated to the sideline in favor of the new and sensationally popular iPad.
Thus, these private briefings. Not merely to explain what Mountain Lion is — that could just as easily be done with a website or PDF feature guide — but to convey that the Mac and OS X remain both important and the subject of the company’s attention. The move to a roughly annual release cycle, to me, suggests that Apple is attempting to prove itself a walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time company. Remember this, five years ago?
Putting both iOS and OS X on an annual release schedule is a sign that Apple is confident it no longer needs to make such tradeoffs in engineering resources. There’s an aspect of Apple’s “now” — changes it needs to make, ways the company needs to adapt — that simply relate to just how damn big, and how successful, the company has become. They are in uncharted territory, success-wise. They are cognizant that they’re no longer the upstart, and are changing accordingly.
It seems important to Apple that the Mac not be perceived as an afterthought compared to the iPad, and, perhaps more importantly, that Apple not be perceived as itself considering or treating the Mac as an afterthought.
I’ve been using Mountain Lion for a week, preinstalled on a MacBook Air loaned to me by Apple. I have little to report: it’s good, and I look forward to installing the developer preview on my own personal Air. It’s a preview, incomplete and with bugs, but it feels at least as solid as Lion did a year ago in its developer previews.
I’m interested to see how developer support for Mac App Store-only features plays out. Two big ones: iCloud document storage and Notification Center. Both of these are slated only for third-party apps from the Mac App Store. Many developers, though, have been maintaining non-Mac App Store versions of their apps. If this continues, such apps are going to lose feature parity between the App Store and non-App Store versions. Apple is not taking the Mac in iOS’s “all apps must come through the App Store” direction, but they’re certainly encouraging developers to go Mac App Store-only with iCloud features that are only available to Mac App Store apps (and, thus, which have gone through the App Store approval process).
My favorite Mountain Lion feature, though, is one that hardly even has a visible interface. Apple is calling it “Gatekeeper”. It’s a system whereby developers can sign up for free-of-charge Apple developer IDs which they can then use to cryptographically sign their applications. If an app is found to be malware, Apple can revoke that developer’s certificate, rendering the app (along with any others from the same developer) inert on any Mac where it’s been installed. In effect, it offers all the security benefits of the App Store, except for the process of approving apps by Apple. Users have three choices which type of apps can run on Mountain Lion:
- Only those from the App Store
- Only those from the App Store or which are signed by a developer ID
- Any app, whether signed or unsigned
The default for this setting is, I say, exactly right: the one in the middle, disallowing only unsigned apps. This default setting benefits users by increasing practical security, and also benefits developers, preserving the freedom to ship whatever software they want for the Mac, with no approval process.
Call me nuts, but that’s one feature I hope will someday go in the other direction — from OS X to iOS.
As soon as Schiller told me the name, I silently cursed myself for not having predicted it. Apple is a company of patterns. iPhone 3G, followed by a same-form-factor-but-faster 3GS; iPhone 4 followed by a same-form-factor-but-faster 4S. Leopard followed by Snow Leopard; so, of course: Lion followed by Mountain Lion. ↩︎
On the Mac, Notification Center alerts are decidedly inspired by those of Growl, a longstanding open source project that is now sold for $2 in the Mac App Store. I hereby predict “Apple ripped off Growl” as the mini-scandal of the day. ↩︎
There is a feature from the iPhone that I would love to see ported to the Mac, but which is not present in Mountain Lion: Siri. There’s either a strategic reason to keep Siri iPhone 4S-exclusive, or it’s a card Apple is holding to play at a later date. ↩︎