Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

According to Wikipedia, the mountain lion, also known as the cougar, is distinguished by having the greatest range of any large wild terrestrial animal in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, from what we've seen so far of Apple's forthcoming Mac operating system, its new features will likely find favor with a broader range of Apple users than Lion.


Not everyone will embrace Mountain Lion's additions.

Unquestionably, Apple has a vested interest in easing the path to the Mac from the iPad and iPhone, whose users have expanded to include many people accustomed to Windows PCs. Lion, the seventh major version of OS X, began the post-iPad cycle of bringing iOS conventions "back to the Mac" -- revisions that fundamentally affected Mac's core user experience. A few of these, including "natural" scrolling, full-screen apps and particularly Launchpad, rankled some Mac veterans, who needed to either unlearn old behaviors or just ignored them outright. In contrast, most of Mountain Lion's additions focus on carrying over iOS applications and features that feel more at home on the desktop.

However, not everyone will embrace Mountain Lion's additions. Some of the new features compete with those provided by third parties, although some at least work with a broader array of platforms. The new features and the apps that they encroach upon, if any at all, look like this:

AirPlay mirroring
With the exception of anyone still rooting for Apple to hop on the DLNA bandwagon, few will be displeased with this carry-over from the iPhone and iPad, which lets you wirelessly send your display to a television equipped with Apple TV. An alternative to Intel's WiDi technology built into many Windows notebooks, this should come in handy for viewing photos, watching movies and sharing presentations in the office, or even the classroom.

Documents in the cloud
No self-respecting company with its own ecosystem can move forward without a cloud strategy these days. Apple seems to have broken free from the ghost of MobileMe and .Mac, as evidenced by the 100 million users it's attracted to iCloud. The integration with Mountain Lion will step up competition with a number of cloud storage services, particularly startup darling Dropbox. But Dropbox has been especially aggressive in supporting a broad range of platforms. Even on the app-poor BlackBerry PlayBook, for example, where Dropbox does not have a branded client, third parties have created apps to access your Dropbox folder.

Messages


Apple seems to have broken free from the ghost of MobileMe.

Showing that RIM won't be the only company to make a go of a private messaging service on handsets, Apple has claimed strong adoption of iMessage, with 100 million users sending 26 billion messages since its launch last summer. Those users will now be able to include Macs in their secure multimedia chit-chat using Messages, which represents the other shoe dropping on FaceTime / iChat. Despite FaceTime taking over video chat duties for Messages, multiparty chat will continue to be supported in Mountain Lion.

Notes
Much as Documents in the Cloud competes with the more ubiquitous Dropbox, Notes – which syncs with the iOS app of the same name – competes with Web-app hybrids such as Springpad, Catch and, in particular, Evernote. Just like Documents in the Cloud, though, Notes will be limited to OS X and iOS, whereas those competing apps are available on more platforms, and in the browser.

Game Center
As iOS game owners well know, Apple's Game Center is one of two main options available for services such as leaderboards, achievements and matchmaking, the other being OpenFeint. The arrival of Game Center on the Mac resurrects the old challenges that XBox Live created when it expanded from its namesake console to the PC, where players had an advantage in certain kinds of games due to the more expansive controls available on that platform. Things may be a bit more evenly matched on Apple's platforms, though, where the multitouch screen could lend the iPad some advantages in casual gaming.

Notifications
While notifications have long since been standard in Windows, Mac users have primarily relied on a third-party utility called Growl for their ambient pop-ups. Mountain Lion's approach is kind of a mashup between Growl- and iOS-style notifications, with a two-finger trackpad gesture allowing you to swipe from the right to open notifications. Suffice to say, OS-level support for notifications should lead to broader adoption.

Gatekeeper
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Mountain Lion is Gatekeeper, which separates Mac apps into three tiers: those available via the app store, those distributed via registered developers and then, everything else. The feature is somewhat akin to Android in that it allows uses to install apps exclusively from known sources, but it provides an additional degree of granularity. On one hand, Gatekeeper shows Apple's commitment to keeping the Mac platform open, with multiple means of distribution even as it advocates distribution via its own app store. On the other hand, some may bristle at the notion of Apple offering additional controls over apps distributed outside the App Store, even in the name of raising the barriers to malware.

Reminders
While most of Mountain Lion's new features benefit from being tailored for the Mac, the advantages are minimal in the case of Reminders. Unlike its iPhone counterpart, which can be programmed to be location-aware, Macs are relatively sedentary. On the other hand, many users still spend a good chunk of their work day engaged with their computer's screen, and iCloud syncing iOS and OS X apps should lessen the need to have to pull out an iPhone just to set a reminder. That said, Apple hasn't said anything about the availability of Siri on Macs, which means entering those reminders is still arguably easier on the go.

All told, Mountain Lion is looking like a more typical operating system update with some new capabilities, stronger cloud ties and features ported over from its own platforms (as well as others). All told, it's not the kind of user interface road-bending we saw with Lion, but it's also not the swerve that is Windows 8's Metro experience.


Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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Switched On: Mountain Lion brings iOS apps, malware traps