Monday, February 20, 2012

OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion is said to arrive this summer, with Apple returning to a yearly update schedule. More frequent upgrades should help speed the adoption of new APIs and Objective-C language features, but I question whether Apple has the resources to pull this off. Some would say that it’s already stretched thin between Mac and iOS development and that quality has suffered. Indeed, the yearly schedule had already proved unsustainable before the iPhone was released.

A new release every year means that Apple will need to produce a continuous stream of new user-facing features that can appear in screenshots and on feature lists. But what I want most from OS upgrades (and the developer tools) are bug fixes, stability, and polish. Despite the Lion-derived name, Mountain Lion seems to be more of a “feature” release than Snow Leopard. Have we seen the end of super-stable releases like Mac OS X 10.5.8 and 10.6.8? Developers can provide plenty of exciting new features and apps if they have a solid foundation to build upon. By the same token, if there’s a constant churn and the ground is always shifting, we burn development and support time without having much to show for it. It also makes it harder to be ruthless. So I question the wisdom of having yearly updates to both OS X and iOS.

Some of the more egregious problems with Lion’s Address Book and iCal seem to be fixed. (The skeuomorphic chrome remains in place, though.) And there’s some cool new stuff in Mountain Lion for developers. More in-depth discussion will have to wait until the NDA is lifted.

The biggest news is, of course, Gatekeeper and the Developer ID—which are along the lines of the system that Wil Shipley proposed. The technology behind Gatekeeper is good and unsurprising. What’s important is how Apple will use it and what comes next.

Is Gatekeeper proof that Apple wants a vibrant Mac software market outside of the Mac App Store? Or is it just another click of the ratchet to a future where all software must be approved by Apple? I think it’s a Rorschach test; the facts can interpreted either way. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that Apple is providing for a level of security between zero and fully sandboxed. That’s a win for users, developers, and Apple. On the other hand, adding a Gatekeeper-like feature would also be a necessary transition step towards a more restricted world. We went from total freedom to a Security preferences pane that offers three radio buttons for which types of apps are allowed. The next step could be reducing it to two or to one.

The bottom line: are you more worried about Apple having a killswitch for your favorite apps than you are about a family member downloading and launching a malicious app that said killswitch would have protected against? Right now, with almost no Mac malware, it seems unnecessary to make any sort of tradeoff. But it’s prudent to be ready in case that changes.

Here are some areas to watch going forward:

  1. What language will Apple use to describe apps that don’t use Developer ID? How strong will the implication be that they’re unsafe or second-class?
  2. Will Apple only use Gatekeeper to block true malware? Originally we were told that the iTunes App Store review process was to protect users and the cell network. Apple would provide some common-sense guidelines that determined which apps would be improved and rejected. What actually happened was that app review was capricious. Apple rejected some apps for business and political reasons. It approved others that clearly violated the guidelines. Some types of safe apps were unwanted. Other apps had “too many” competitors in their genre.
  3. Will Gatekeeper eventually step in below the file quarantine level?
  4. What recourse is there for an application that’s mistakenly identified as malware?
  5. Will apps from identified developers have access to the same APIs as apps in the Mac App Store? Currently the answer is No, and Mountain Lion has added more such APIs, widening the gulf. Actions speak louder than words, and Apple has yet to even say that it desires parity. Thus, I’m skeptical of the feel-good rhetoric to Panic about not poisoning the well.
  6. What will happen on March 1? It’s now been more than eight months since the sandbox’s semi-secret debut at WWDC 2011. At the technical level, it still isn’t ready for primetime. At the policy level, it’s still unclear what the March deadline means. And communication from Apple has been almost entirely absent on these important issues. Originally it made a kind of sense that, if the sandbox implementation had been complete and solid, it should be adopted before the next major release of the OS. Now, with Mountain Lion scheduled for this summer, I don’t see how Apple can justify imposing the sandbox on Lion. There isn’t even a mechanism to prevent sandboxed apps from launching, and causing harm, on the earlier versions of Lion that had more bugs.
  7. Will Apple add support for Developer ID apps to iOS? This seems incredibly unlikely, but it sure would be effective at restoring goodwill. It’s becoming increasingly clear to people that the App Store doesn’t guarantee safety, and Gatekeeper shows that other options are possible.

See also the posts from Matt Alexander, Marco Arment, Rainer Brockerhoff, Jacqui Cheng, Andrew Cunningham and Anand Lal Shimpi, Dustin Curtis, Chris Foresman, Dan Frakes, Steven Frank, Jean-Louis Gassée, John Gruber, Pierre Igot, Daniel Jalkut, Jesper, Rich Mogull, Dan Moren, David Pogue, John Siracusa, Jason Snell, Sean Sullivan, The Talk Show, Marcel Weiher, and Dave Winer.

5 Comments RSS · Twitter

As always, your post hits it right on the head. On the surface yearly updates sounds great but on reflection I dread to think what will actually happen to OS X. Lion has some great new features that built upon 10.6 but jeez is it buggy and sometimes almost useless. It's the first OS X release I actually find myself fighting against and wanting to go back to 10.6 I've lost count of the many glaring bugs, features that just fail to work as advertised, really dumb interoperability moves Apple has taken, etc.

10.8 makes me wonder how on earth they will fix bugs, improve stability, make shit just work like it's meant to, when they can't do it for Lion. Shortening the release schedule seems like it'll be worse but that's just me basing it on 10.7 as of now.

The other thing you mentioned are the new in-your-face, marketing features, such as Messages, Reminders, Notes, etc. To be honest, I like Messages, but the rest are pretty much just remodelled apps that already exist in OS X and are just polished up to resemble iOS' versions. It's cool, but it's hardly pushing OS X forward. Then there's Calendar, Contacts. Stand-out features indeed, but only because they were removed in 10.7 and are brought back for 10.8.

Anyway, here's hoping we get rock-hard stability like it was on Snow Leopard (Best OS X ever, for me) and if Apple choose to slap on some new apps then make sure that stuff just works.


[...] implementation) or not at all (pre-sandbox). There’s still the issue of these APIs being missing on Mac OS X 10.7.0 through 10.7.2, and there’s plenty more about the sandbox that still [...]

[...] OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion → 4 seconds ago Is Gatekeeper proof that Apple wants a vibrant Mac software market outside of the Mac App Store? Or is it just another click of the ratchet to a future where all software must be approved by Apple? I think it’s a Rorschach test; the facts can interpreted either way. [...]

[...] users could just download apps from outside the store. It’s not clear how many realize that Gatekeeper apps cannot use iCloud and some other [...]

[…] didn’t think yearly OS releases would be good for quality, and I continue to believe that Apple is trying to […]

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