OS X Mountain Lion: The Realization of the New Digital Hub

Most folks may remember last June’s WWDC Keynote as the final public keynote ever delivered by Steve Jobs before his death four months later. What they may not remember was that in that keynote, Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s newest product strategy, which has set Apple up for the next decade.

In 2001, Apple introduced the world to the concept of the Digital Hub, this idea that the next great renaissance of personal computing was that computers would become the center of our digital lives, spearheading the evolution of digital music, digital photos, and digital videos. Out of that vision came iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and most notably, the iPod. It was a strategy that catapulted Apple from a fringe company that had narrowly avoided a near-collapse to a leading company of consumer media creation tools and consumption devices.

But in 2011, Steve Jobs declared that the Digital Hub concept had broken down, now that mobile devices had matured to the point where they were equally capable of wireless communications and content creation, not just content consumption. That’s when Jobs said perhaps the most important sentence of the entire keynote: “We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device.” That is, the personal computer is no longer the digital hub, it is a device on equal footing with our mobile devices, and the new digital hub is going to be in the cloud.

Enter iCloud, Apple’s vision for the future of how we manage our digital content. Deeply integrated into iOS 5, iCloud solved a lot of the concerns about how we could keep our content in sync between our computers and our other devices by doing it automatically. The problem was, on the Mac side, iCloud felt like little more than a free replacement for the ill-fated MobileMe, and that’s largely because iCloud was developed in parallel with Mac OS X Lion and unceremoniously tacked on in the 10.7.2 update.

That’s why this week’s announcement of OS X Mountain Lion is a big deal: it fulfills the demotion of the Mac towards becoming just another device, on equal ground with iOS devices. And it makes a giant step forward to a future where inevitably the difference between Mac and iPad is almost non-distinguishable.

A lot of note has been made about how Mountain Lion formally drops the “Mac” from its name — it’s now just OS X. And while a decision on whether or not a merge of OS X and iOS is inevitable (seems to me that after the 10.9 release, someone’s going to have to decide what to do with that version number) it’s clear that Apple is positioning the platforms to be as interoperable as possible, using iCloud as the link between them. To that end, apps have been added or repositioned in OS X to link directly to their iOS counterparts, more so than in Lion, with the renaming of Address Book to Contacts, iCal to Calendars, iChat to Messages (plus the addition of the iMessage service), and the addition of new apps for Reminders and Notes. This in addition to apps that are already native to both: Mail, Safari, iTunes, and the respective App Stores.

But Apple is not the only one trying to distribute its apps natively across both iOS and OS X, it’s making great strides to get developers to do the same. For gaming apps, Apple is bringing Game Center, its social gaming platform for iOS, to Mountain Lion. For games that are written for both OS X and iOS, Game Center will allow Mac gamers to play against users on iOS devices. (I’ll leave the obvious questions of how you make a game consistent between a mouse/trackpad interface and a multi-touch interface for another day.) And for other apps, Mountain Lion actually transforms the open/save dialogs to allow a choice between saving documents to the traditional filesystem, or saving to iCloud. This expands iCloud’s Documents in the Cloud from its current limited support for only iWork and only on iOS devices to fold Macs and third-party apps into the mix, and again encourages apps to support both platforms.

Now I can see where a lot of long-time Mac users may have concerns about the continued iOS-ification of the Mac platform; indeed, the rate of iOS feature integration in Mountain Lion makes the interface changes that were added to Lion last summer seem tame in comparison. But I think that in the long-run, this trend is a net positive for the Mac.

For one thing, it’s clear with this week’s announcement that Apple has no plans to abandon the Mac. Actually, it’s stepping up the pace of Mac development: Apple announced that they intend to release OS X updates annually, bringing it to the same pace of development as iOS. Furthermore, with Apple’s huge competitive lead in the iOS sphere, bringing the Mac platform closer to feature parity will only help to reinvigorate the Mac market. Game Center is a great example of this: Macs have long lagged behind PCs in gaming, but iOS has become the fastest-growing mobile gaming platform. Given that OS X and iOS already share the same development tool (Xcode), it’s likely that this development will vastly open up a new platform for Mac gaming. Plus as Macs adopt more iOS functionality, they will certainly continue to attract new followers migrating from the iOS market, which will attract more iOS developers to transition to Mac compatibility for their apps, made possible through integration with iCloud.

Despite the continued trend towards iOS-ification, Mountain Lion still maintains a blend of old and new. iCloud may be deeply integrated, but it’s still optional to sign up for, particularly if you don’t use or don’t care to sync with iOS devices. Mountain Lion continues to support a filesystem, allow for levels of customization and advanced modification not even possible on iOS (without jailbreaking), and permit the use of apps outside of the Mac App Store.

But at the end of the day, the Mac is just another device. Whether your preferred device is an iPod touch/iPhone, an iPad, a Mac, or some combination of those, each device has its unique strengths and weaknesses. Bringing OS X and iOS into closer parity merely makes them more equal citizens of this new digital era, and iCloud allows them to play nicely with each other without end-user hassles. From where I’m sitting, that seems like a pretty big upside to me.

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About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.