Mountain Lion came as a surprise today, proving Apple still has the capacity to shock and that Microsoft can't expect plain sailing with Windows 8 later this year. The next version of OS X isn't expected in consumer form until this summer, but already - with just a few features revealed - it's looking more grounded and cohesive than Lion before it. Microsoft's challenge is completing a risky, high-stakes revolution in its PC business, while Apple consolidates its already capable, well-esteemed platform and further feathers its maturing ecosystem.
[Image credit: California DFG]
OS X is on an evolutionary trajectory, Apple taking iOS features and "re-imagining" them for the desktop. It's only possible to do that if your underlying foundations are solid, and that's certainly the case with the Mac platform today. Lion divided opinion with its sometimes naive gesture mimicry from the iPad, among other things, leading to criticisms that the OS felt half-baked at times. Mountain Lion, though, shows Apple isn't intending to turn OS X into a pale facsimile of iOS, but is instead shaving away at the divide between them with features tailored to meet how each is actually used.
Where Apple has the advantage is in iCloud. Since it was launched alongside iOS 5 in October last year, the cloud-based sync and backup service has already seen 85 million accounts created. Now, that heft is shifting to the desktop, blurring the boundaries between mobile and home/office data. As a way of promoting Apple's overall ecosystem, it looks to follow in the footsteps of iTunes and the App Store: compelling services that are only available on Apple hardware, each piece a gateway into the platform as a whole.
[aquote]Windows 8 has fewer surprises left in store[/aquote]
Mountain Lion undoubtedly still has surprises for us: Apple has shown us ten, eleven features out of a promised 100+ after all. It's also at a very different stage to Windows 8, which has shown its hand in many ways and, though we're not quite upon the consumer preview, has fewer surprises left in store.
That familiarity could make it easy to dismiss Windows 8 amid the glowing newness of Mountain Lion, but that would be a mistake. Microsoft's risk with Windows 8 is vast, but so are its opportunities: if it gets Metro, the transition from the traditional desktop, and integration between PC, mobile and gaming correct, it could easily throw off the bad memories of recent OS iterations, and find a burgeoning ecosystem of its own.
If Microsoft thought Apple would give it a clear window in which to attempt that, though, it was sorely mistaken. Nonetheless, there's little time to lose. PC sales have stagnated while Macs have flourished, and long-standing collaborator Intel has begun flirting with Android and other platforms as it realizes it doesn't so much matter what software is installed, as long as it's running on Intel's own silicon. The opportunity for Windows 8 to convince is narrowing fast, and if Microsoft's not careful Mountain Lion will lope down and gut its market.
More details on Mountain Lion in our full preview.