Between work and home I own eight Apple computers — four iMacs, two MacBook Air, two Mac Pro. So, like any respectable user, I promptly upgraded the operating system to the new version, OS 10.8 (aka Mountain Lion), which has now been available for a few weeks. Around this time last year, its predecessor Lion had come out. On that occasion, after installing it on all my machines, I expressed in a blog post my lukewarm feelings about it.
In that post I tried to articulate my bewilderment of simple end user, with the road that Apple seemed to have taken, ostensibly aimed at unifying a user’s desktop computing experience with that on portable devices (such as the iPad), the latter increasingly becoming the new “personal computing” paradigm, the mythical desktop computer inexorably headed toward obsolescence. Sensible as it may be, surely firmly grounded in brutal, dispassionate market analyses, that strategy seems to me to be destined to leave out in the cold the few of us who remain (for the foreseeable future) committed to desktop computing — for work, writing, and even entertainment.
I also opined that Apple, and for that matter even a company like Microsoft, would be soon facing serious competition from Google’s implementation of cloud computing, in the long run (if widely adopted) rendering the actual hardware and software of a personal computing device increasingly irrelevant — all that is needed being a fast network connection and a web browser.
When it comes to computing, one year is a long time. Over the past twelve months, my reliance on cloud services (in my case Google Docs) has grown stronger, especially following the introduction of Google Drive. It is now clear to me that this is how I shall be doing personal computing over the next umpteen years. This will make it very difficult for me in the future to justify substantial monetary investments in computer hardware, for purposes other than technical (in my case, scientific computing). In turn, that means that I see myself moving away from Apple as a platform, because of its relatively high cost.
What made Apple products compelling to me for a long time (ten years) was the fact that they were consistently ahead of the curve, i.e., they would offer functionality that the competition did not seem to be able to match, particularly when it came to integration among different devices (smart phone, tablet and desktop computer).
Lately, however, I have become convinced that this is no longer the case, i.e., in what appears to be a stunning remake of the scenario that took place in the late 80s, Apple seems to have lost its edge over the competition. It would and will be too easy to attribute that to the fact that its iconic founder Steve Jobs is no longer among us — truth is, some of what we are observing was already happening with him at the helm, and it is a simple fact of life that nothing and no one can remain number one forever.
The latest version of Apple’s operating system , in my opinion, all but confirms that Apple is now playing catch-up more than leading.
What is new ?
Although Mountain Lion is advertised by Apple as “innovative” compared to its predecessor (just like all previous releases of OS X), with the usual ridiculous number of alleged “new features”, upon installing it it appears immediately clear that this version is but a tweak of the previous implementation, i.e., Lion. Little or nothing about it can truly be called “innovative”.
Perhaps the most significant innovation is the name itself — not so much “Mountain Lion” but the fact that this is the first version to be named OS X 10.8 — as opposed to Mac OS X. The significance of this fact, is that it makes it official that the operating system is not something that should be regarded as pertaining exclusively to the desktop computer, but rather to the whole universe of computing gadgets, including the iPhone and iPad. Consequently, whatever drives the design is not necessarily the best user’s experience on a desktop computer. And it shows.
Speed. I have to admit, I am pleased by this one thing: for the first time since 2002, I find a new version of OS X faster than the previous one. Whether that points to some possible flaws affecting Lion, or whether maybe some brilliant solutions have been found by Apple’s programmers, there is no question in my mind that my five-year old iMac feels much snappier running Mountain Lion than it did on Lion.
I wish I could say the same about my 2008 MacBook Air — alas, Mountain Lion cannot be installed on it. Apparently I do not have enough memory, and oh, installing more memory on a 2008 computer is apparently just about as costly as buying a brand new portable computer. Thank you, Apple.
The Cloud. This is, to me, the most important innovation, namely the fact that Mountain Lion is much more cloud oriented than Lion. It is now possible to save all documents created with applications such as Numbers, Keynote and Pages on the cloud, which does not reside on the computer but can be accessed from any device, including by collaborators or other users. So, in principle this duplicates the functionality offers by Google… in principle. In practice, I think it is too late for Apple to catch up with Google on this. The fact that Google Docs was created from the ground up to be used with just a simple web browser, that it does not require that one be using a specific operating system and office suite, and that documents are much more easily shared, makes this a losing battle, in my opinion, not only for Apple but for Microsoft as well.
What do I need this for ? Another “new” thing with which OS X comes, is the notification centre. Here is how it works. Say you receive a new email. How would you know you just did ? It’s a bit of a mystery, right ? No, seriously hear me now. I mean, sure, you have the mail icon in your dock, and a big fat red “1” appears on it… yes, you have a loud obnoxious sound going off… in fact, some of us even have it set up so that a voice will go “You’ve got mail !”, but… so what ? One cannot just assume that a new mail message has arrived, based on such flimsy, inconclusive evidence. So, the job of the notification centre is precisely that of letting the user know that, yes, it is not just her imagination, a new mail message has indeed arrived. What do you know… that makes it so much easier…
All right, fine, I know, this is not really a “desktop feature”, it is mostly meant to enhance one’s experience on an iPhone or iPad — portable devices where one is running a full-screen application at a time, and one might not be aware right away that, say, a new mail message has arrived, or someone has commented on our picture on Facebook. And, as mentioned above, the operating system is now one and the same — whatever feature is required on a smart phone, we get it on the desktop as well, regardless of whether it serves any purpose there.
It is not the first example of an OS X application that has meaning on a mobile device, but is utterly useless on a desktop computer. One need only think of the Launcher, for example, somewhat polished in Mountain Lion. The Launcher has an obvious place on an iPad, say, but on a desktop ? Another example is the infamous Mission Control, which again makes eminent sense on a mobile device but on a desktop represents a clear involution with respect to the much simpler, faster and more rational Spaces.
Now, going back to mobile devices, the thing with the notification centre, is that it is nothing really new. It is a service that users of smart phones running the most serious alternative to Apple iOS that exists out there, namely Google’s Android, have had at their disposal for a long time. As we have already seen with the cloud, Apple is playing catch-up here, and there is one more place (that I can see, anyway) where it seriously is behind.
Safari. I stopped using Safari on my Macs about a year ago, after installing Google Chrome, which I liked a lot better. I like the fact that it has a unified search/address window and also that interfaces seamlessly with Google Apps. I tried out Safari in Mountain Lion. I could not help chuckling, on noticing right away that it has been redesigned to make it look and feel more like Chrome. I like it, it is significantly faster than before and I find it faster than Chrome as well. Here too, though, my impression is that Apple has followed Google’s lead.
Update: I spoke too soon when I said that the new Safari works well with Google Apps — it does not. There are still major issues there, so I am back to using Chrome.
Goodbye Unix. For me, it is kind of sad to note that with every new release OS X is turning increasingly less Unix-like and Unix-friendly. For many of us former Linux users, the transition to Apple Mac OS X was rendered much easier by the fact that it satisfied our inner geek, by granting us the possibility of going under the hood, of opening a terminal in which abstrusely named commands could be entered the old fashioned way. We could install and run those ugly-looking but mission critical applications such as gnuplot (not so much the best as the only plotting program in existence — at least if we are considering plotting software that, um, plots).
All of that is still possible, but not as easy as it used to be. Apple has ostensibly lost interest in the Unix side of OS X. It no longer includes its own X11 server in the operating system (interested users have to install third-party developed XQuartz), and even installing open source software is more difficult now . Development tools (i.e., C and C++ compilers), are no longer installed by default; rather, they must be downloaded and installed separately. Is it a huge problem ? No, but it clearly shows that Apple no longer has much interest in users like me, which is kind of funny, considering the spectacular surge in popularity that over the past decade its products have enjoyed among scientists (in 2001 you could have gone to a March meeting of the American Physical Society and you would have seen only a handful of Apple laptops — these days you have to look hard to spot one that is not Apple… but I guess it won’t last).
So, what do I do next ?
Don’t get me wrong, it is not as if Apple is no good for me anymore. I still love using my iMac, my iPad (well, my iPhone is good too, except that I cannot make phone calls on it anymore). I can still do more than adequately my work, write my programs, plot my date, write my articles, and all the other good stuff. But I still need the Unix part.
And, do I need to pay extra for Apple products, when I could more than likely do what I need just as well n a Linux box, and/or on Android phone and tablet ? It was software that promoted my decision to migrate from Linux to OS X ten years ago. Back in those days, I needed to be able to work with Microsoft documents. But now that need is all but gone. Google Docs is the way everyone is going.
When it first came out, the iPhone was in a different league comapred to all other smart phones. But now ? I do not think so. Android software is no longer almost as good as iOS — in many respects it is better.
I think my next big decision is coming up in a month or so. My iPhone contract came to an end two months ago. For the past three years, I was the happy and proud owner of an Apple iPhone. Do I need a smart phone ? Of course not, but that is hardly the issue — I shall get one anyway .
Depending on whether I decide to get an iPhone 5 or one of the many Android phones out there (I really am lusting after this one), I may end up abandoning Apple altogether, the main reason being that exchanging easily files among various devices has become now necessary. Stay tuned.
 I insist, OS X is by far the best product with which Apple has come out over the past fifteen years. It is to this operating system that Apple owes its stunning comeback and its surge to domination of the personal computer business. Only by rendering the operating system irrelevant, could Google manage to undermine Apple’s commanding position — essentially by changing the whole personal computing paradigm, by adopting a decade later Larry Ellison’s visionary idea.
 Thankfully Gnuplot can still be installed using Macports, but the legendary Fink is no longer being updated, and that means that many open sources applications can not be (easily) installed.
Update: I take it back ! Fink is now available for Mountain Lion as well. So, maybe things are not as bad as I thought.
 I actually do, for a) music and b) photos. I have always been much too lazy to carry a camera with me, but I love taking photos and shooting short videos with my smart phone. It is also nice to be able to go on the internet on the train. I like the GPS application too. Oh, and, yes, I suppose that making that phone call every month or so is also useful.