Notes, Reminders and Game Center

Notes

Mountain Lion comes with several new apps that will seem quite familiar to iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users. Reminders, Notes, and Game Center have all made the transition to the Mac.

Reminders and Notes both look like they do on iOS, and thanks to iCloud syncing they’ll display the same data that shows up on your mobile devices. They are still quite simple apps – the goal seems to have been to provide parity with their iOS cousins. The Notes app does, however, support rich text, so you can choose different fonts, insert photos and attachments, create bulleted lists, and drag in URLs to create hyperlinks.

The new Notes app will look familiar to anyone who has used the program in iOS 5

As in its iOS incarnation, the Notes interface on the Mac is dominated by a yellow, lined text-entry area that resembles a notepad. There’s even a hint of torn paper at the top of the window, and yes, the app’s title bar offers a leather texture. The top-right corner displays the date on which the note was last modified.

At the bottom of the text-entry area, there are just two buttons. A Trash icon deletes your note; while the Share icon brings up one of Mountain Lion’s new Share Sheets, offering to attach your note to an email or iMessage.

The Mac version of Notes does allow you to get a bit more fancy with text. It supports rich text, so you can choose different fonts, and change the text alignment.

The left side of the Notes app features a list of current notes as well as a search box. Apple says that you’ll be able to organise notes by storing them in folders.

If you’re the type of person who liked to use the Stickies app to leave notes visible on your screen, the program can do that too. If you double-click on a note in the list, it will open in its own window.

Just like Notes on iOS and in Mac OS X’s Mail app, the application appears to store its notes on an IMAP email server, in a Notes folder. This means that simply logging in via iCloud won’t turn on syncing of notes across all your devices – the Notes program really wants you to create a me.com email address (or use an existing one) in order to make it work.

Reminders

Reminders uses iCloud to sync across devices

Reminders is an even more basic app than Notes. There’s a reminder window full of tasks you can add and check off. A collapse/expand button at the bottom-left corner lets you toggle a sidebar so you can navigate between lists and search. When the sidebar’s not visible, you can switch between lists via a two-finger swipe on the Trackpad or by clicking on the tiny dots at the bottom of the Reminders window. Items sync via iCloud with the Reminders app on any device running iOS 5.

While very similar to the iOS version of Reminders, Mountain Lion’s take on the app is missing some of the features of its mobile counterpart. As you might imagine, the ability to set location-based reminders – crucial to a mobile app, but not so useful for one that’s running on a desktop—is not included in Mountain Lion’s Reminders.

Game Center

Game Center is coming to the Mac

Game Center was introduced to users with iOS 4.1 in September 2010, and expanded in iOS 5. Now it comes to the Mac, so friends can compare their gaming prowess, as well as play against each other. Mac game developers will get access to a centralised system for network play, opponent matching, and more. And yes, Game Center can work across platforms, so games that run on both OS X and iOS will be compatible.

New security measures in OS X

Gatekeeper

Last year saw the arrival of the Apple-curated Mac App Store, a creation very much in the mould of the iOS App Store. And many people wondered whether a locked-down version of Mac OS X, one incapable of running apps not approved by Apple, would be far behind.

Apple certainly could have done something like that with Mountain Lion, but it hasn’t. Instead, the company has created a new way for developers to sign their work and a new set of options in the Security & Privacy preference pane. According to Apple, it’s all an attempt to improve Mac security. Here’s how the new Gatekeeper feature works.

Mountain Lion will warn you if you try to turn off Gatekeeper

You’ll be told if you try to open a program from an unidentified developer

Check before first launch

Since at least the days of Mac OS X 10.5, the operating system has had a feature called File Quarantine. You most often encounter this when you download an application and run it for the first time – a dialog box appears informing you that it’s a file downloaded from the internet, and asking for you to confirm that you do indeed want to run it. It’s important to note that this feature only works with files downloaded by certain apps, including web browsers and email clients. A file copied from a USB drive, for example, or from a network volume doesn’t get checked, which is something you need to take into account.

Gatekeeper uses this same feature. Instead of just asking you for permission to launch an application for the first time, Mountain Lion will check its security settings to see what sort of applications are allowed to launch. Located in the General tab of the Security & Privacy preference pane is a setting called “Allow applications downloaded from”, which has three options:

Anywhere: This choice uses the same set of rules as every previous version of Mac OS X. If an application isn’t known malware and you approve it, it opens.

Mac App Store: When this choice is selected, any application not downloaded from the Mac App Store will be rejected whenever you try to launch them.

Mac App Store and identified developers: This is the new default setting in Mountain Lion. In addition to Mac App Store apps, it also allows any third-party programs that have been signed by an identified developer (see below) to run.

Gatekeeper’s limitations

If you want Mountain Lion to run every program under the sun, you can just change the setting to Anywhere. (Changing this setting requires that you enter an administrator’s username and password.) Gatekeeper is also easy to override. If you right-click on an app in the Finder and then choose Open, you’re prompted with a different dialog box – one that also offers to open the offending program. If you choose Open, the program launches normally, and that’s it.

Finally, it’s important to note that because Gatekeeper uses the File Quarantine system, it only works the very first time you try to launch an app, and even then only when it’s been downloaded from an app on your Mac like a web browser or email program. And after an app has been launched once, it’s beyond the reach of Gatekeeper.

Combine this with the ease of overriding Gatekeeper by using the Open command and it’s clear that Gatekeeper in Mountain Lion isn’t intended to be some sort of high-security software lockdown. It’s just a tool to encourage people not to run software they don’t trust. If they really, truly want to run an application, Mountain Lion won’t stop them.

Identified developers

So what is an “identified developer”? Basically, it’s anyone who registers as a developer with Apple and receives a personalised certificate. They can then use that certificate to cryptographically sign their applications.

Any such program has two important characteristics – Apple can tell who developed it, and Mountain Lion can detect whether it’s been tampered with since it left the hands of the developer.

The first part is important because, Apple says, if a particular developer is discovered to be distributing malware, it has the ability to revoke their licence and add them to a blacklist. Mountain Lion checks once a day to see whether there have been any additions to this list. If a developer is on the blacklist, the operating system won’t allow any applications singed by that developer to run.

When you try to launch an app using this system, your Mac will check with Apple’s servers to see if the developer’s signature is current. Unfortunately what it won’t do is delete previously installed malware, because once an application has passed File Quarantine and is launched successfully for the first time, it’s escaped Apple’s screening system.

The fact that Mountain Lion can detect applications that have been modified since they were signed is relevant because while there’s not a lot of Mac malware out there, what does exist is largely based on legitimate applications that have been modified to include malware and then redistributed on piracy sites. With this new model, any tampering with an application would render it unlaunchable.

Given the scrutiny that Apple puts applications through as a part of the App Store screening process, it’s important to note what the “identified developer” program doesn’t do.

It’s not a background check for developers. Getting a certificate isn’t like getting a passport or a driving licence. A developer signs up for an account and gets a certificate. That’s it. What’s more, these applications have no seal of approval from Apple, who never sees them. Developers don’t need to check with Apple before signing applications. Apple’s not involved other than providing them with a certificate that it can revoke later if it feels the developer is distributing malware.