It’s less than a year since Mac OS X Lion was rolled out, but Apple is already planning to introduce a new version of its desktop operating system this summer. The update – dubbed Mountain Lion – will incorporate many of the features first introduced in the iOS mobile operating system, as Apple looks to bolster the compatibility of its two platforms and bring iOS features to the Mac.

Apple let Macworld have an early look at Mountain Lion just before it was rolled out to developers and we were impressed with what we saw. The company has also released a public beta of Messages, a revamped version of iChat that replicates much of the functionality found in the iOS version of the program.

In addition to Messages, Mountain Lion adapts such iOS features as Reminders, Notes, Notification Center, Twitter integration, Game Center, and AirPlay Mirroring for the Mac. It also adds options for limiting the kinds of programs users can install. As the first OS X release post-iCloud, there’s thorough integration with Apple’s data-syncing service. A raft of features have also been added that will appeal to its customers in China.  

It will be a paid upgrade to OS X; and like Lion, it will be available only via a Mac App Store download, so Snow Leopard or Lion will most likely be required. Apple hasn’t yet set a price or a release date more specific than “summer”. Mac developers are already able to download the developer release of Mountain Lion, giving them several months to update their apps to take advantage of the new features in the release.

We had a few days to use the development version of Mountain Lion, so if you want to be the first to see what new features we can expect, keeping in mind that Apple may add and change features over the next few months, read on.

iMessage on your iPad, iPhone, and now your Mac

iMessage

Messages is set to replace iChat and will support the iMessage chat system introduced in iOS 5

iChat is dead – long live Messages. With Apple’s announcement of Mac OS X Mountain Lion comes the news that iChat is being upgraded and renamed Messages, with support for the iMessage chat system introduced with iOS 5.

If you can’t wait until the operating system arrives this summer to finally use iMessage with your Mac, relax – you don’t have to. Apple has also released a beta version for Lion users. (The final version will be available when Mountain Lion ships.) We’ve spent a few days using Messages and Mountain Lion. Here’s a first look, keeping in mind that Mountain Lion won’t be released for a few months, so features are in flux and could change.

The feature that transforms iChat into Messages is support for the iMessage chat system. Apple says that in the few months since iOS 5 arrived, there have already been 100 million registered users and more than 26 billion iMessages have been sent.

When Apple introduced iMessage, people focused on how it’s similar to the SMS text messaging system used on phones. And yes, it’s great that iPhone users can send text and multimedia files over the internet without any of the per-message charges that wireless carriers levy for texts. But that misses the bigger picture – by using the internet instead of the mobile networks, Apple devices that aren’t phones can join the party. iOS 5 gave the iPad and the iPod touch iMessage capabilities, and now it’s the Mac’s turn.

iMessage supports some nice extra features such as the ability to (optionally) send information about whether you’ve received and read a message, and when you’re in the process of sending a reply. To send a message to someone using iMessage, you need to know their Apple ID – this is usually based on their email address and may also be their iCloud username.

You can send text, pictures and other attachments, and if you want to talk with more than one friend, there’s support for multi-person chats. It’s all encrypted, and it works whether you’re on an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or a Mac. And if you’re logged into iMessage on multiple devices, your conversations will go with you – you can start a chat on a Mac, for example, and end up on an iPad, with your entire conversation available for reference.

iChat plus iMessage

Though the name is now Messages, the features of iChat are more or less intact. The app still supports AIM, Yahoo, and Jabber protocols. Since Google’s chat system uses Jabber, Messages is compatible with Google Talk too.

There’s a buddy list and support for audio and video chats, as well as screen sharing via those services. iChat Theater is still there – it’s called Theater, and is accessible once you start a video chat from the Buddy List.
The major interface change in the upgrade from iChat is the new Messages window. This collects all your currently-active conversations, regardless of which service they’re on.

The left side of the Messages pane is a scrollable list showing every conversation, with the name and buddy icon of the person you talked to, a portion of the most recent message in the conversation, and the time or date the most recent message was sent or received. You can remove items from the left pane by moving your mouse over one and clicking the X icon that appears. Typing Cmd-W will also remove the currently selected item. You can double-click on any of the items in the left pane to open them in a standalone window, if you prefer to have several, separate chat windows open at once.

Mountain Lion lets you send AIM messages from a Mac

The right side of the pane is a chat window. There’s nothing dramatically different here, though when someone’s typing you’ll see the same thought-bubble icon that’s on display in the iOS Messages app. The text-entry box at the bottom of the pane displays what service you’re using for this particular conversation, until you begin typing. At the top of the pane, there’s a camera button that gives you quick access to video chat. FaceTime is the primary objective here. Messages will show you every phone number and email address for the person you’re chatting to, in the hope that one of them will be valid for FaceTime use. If you just want to use AIM to chat to them, you have to scroll down to the Other submenu and pick an account.

While Messages links to FaceTime, it’s important to note that Messages doesn’t do FaceTime. When you select a FaceTime address and initiate a session, Messages opens the FaceTime app and initiates the connection. The two remain completely separate.

Mixing support for iMessage and traditional IM services in one app does lead to some irregularities, though. For instance, there’s no concept of a buddy list – to chat with someone via iMessage, you first need to create a new message and type in their name. We’re not sure whether Apple wants people to think of iMessage as just another instant-messaging service, but we do see the appeal of building a list of our favourite iMessage chat recipients (and being able to tell at a glance if they’re available to talk).

To view a conversation in its own window, you simply double-click on it

There’s also the question of alerts across devices. Anyone who’s had both an iPad and an iPhone hooked up to iMessage will already know about this phenomenon – every time that someone sends you a message, all of your enabled devices will beep, and new notifications appear. When we chatted to friends using Messages on a Mac, our iPhone and iPad beeped every time we received a reply to a message. There’s probably a better way to handle situations like this.

And, of course, the only way to get iMessages across all your devices is to send them to the Apple ID rather than the mobile number. We’re waiting for Apple to solve this issue, which leads some messages not to be received on all devices, until it is, old fashioned text messaging and iMessaging aren’t really unified, which can lead to confusion.

There’s no telling how much Messages may change and grow in the months between now and its final release as a part of Mountain Lion. But even in beta form, it’s an exciting update. With Messages, Apple’s finally brought all of its hardware into a single, unified text messaging universe. We expect usage of iMessage to soar in the months ahead.

Problems with iMessage

What needs work: The buddy list/conversation window pairing The new look works well when you’re chatting, yet it somehow feels odd located next to the buddy list. Slotting your list of contacts right next to your conversation window with its own list of contacts seems wrong, though we’re not sure what the solution is. Certainly, the conversation window’s tabs ought to reflect some of the information that’s currently only in the buddy list: whether a contact is online, away or offline, and if they have support for video chatting spring immediately to mind.

What doesn’t work: The tab animations When you receive new messages, the tab for that conversation leaps to the top of the sidebar. That’s similar to what happens in iOS, but it’s a bit disconcerting if you’re maintaining multiple conversations at once; the constant bouncing and tab rearranging quickly becomes a distraction.

When a new message is received the tab for that conversation leaps to the top, which can be disconcerting

What works: iMessage integration The mix of iMessaging and instant messaging is a little strange. There’s no buddy list, and if you have contacts you iMessage but don’t IM, you’ll need to type in their phone numbers or email addresses manually, or add them to a buddy list. You’ll also receive your messages on all your devices, which is annoying since you’ll hear multiple devices ping or vibrate with each message you receive.

And if your address book and buddy list aren’t in good shape things can get messy. For example, if you have multiple entries for a contact – perhaps they have an entry in your address book/contacts as well as your buddy list – they will be treated as separate contacts.

What needs work: Video chat integration At the upper right of the conversation window is a video chatting icon. To our eyes, it’s a bit difficult to determine whether the icon is active and clickable or greyed out.

Clicking the icon exposes a menu. That menu contains options for placing a FaceTime call to your contact, or if your contact uses the AIM network, you also get options to place a video or audio call over that network instead – it’s the same way that iChat used to conduct video calls. The AIM video calling options are tucked under another option if FaceTime is available for your friend; otherwise, the option appears top-level in the menu. Messages should simply list any options for video chatting and forego the Other menu choice entirely.

The AIM video calling option is better, because FaceTime calls get kicked out to the dedicated app. We’d like to see Apple integrate FaceTime calls as seamlessly as AIM video calls work in Messages.