OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion [Review]

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OS X Mountain Lion is here, and it's even sleeker than Lion.
OS X Mountain Lion is here, and it's even sleeker than Lion.

Messages & iMessage

Scott Forstall announces iMessage for iOS back in 2011.

In the short year since it was first unveiled by Scott Forstall at WWDC 2011, iMessage has become one of iOS’s quietest, most indispensable and most disruptive features.

Goodbye, iChat, the most Aqua-ey of apps.

Quiet because, to end users, what iMessage does is invisible: it allows you to send free messages to other iDevices over WiFi and 3G instead of charging to send it as an SMS  text. Indispensable because, once you are using iMessage, you can stop worrying about extortionate SMS carrier fees except when your friends don’t have an iPhone or iPad. And disruptive because, in less than a year, iMessage has signaled a sea change in the U.S. telecommunications industry, who have realized the jig is up on 1000% profit margins on the text message racket, and switched over to unlimited voice and text plans.

With Mountain Lion, iMessage comes to OS X with Messages, a new app replacing the old-in-the-tooth iChat instant messaging client that has shipped with every version of OS X since Jaguar. It’s a big win for Mac and iOS users both, but it takes some getting used to.

Apple’s goal with Messages in Mountain Lion is to blur the distinction between all of the different messaging platforms we use to keep in contact with each other.

Apple’s goal with Messages in Mountain Lion isn’t just to allow Mac and iOS users to chat easily amongst themselves, but to blur the distinction between all of the different messaging platforms we use to keep in contact with each other. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense: ostensibly, when we message someone, we want to talk to them, not worry about the medium we’re using to contact them.

The problem is that, in practice, the medium we use to contact a person defines the context in which we want to talk to them. If you message someone on AIM, you probably want to have a longer, more involved chat than if you’re messaging them on their iPhone. Messages’s attempts to blur these lines, then, can end up resulting in something of a learning curve, as you have to force yourself to rethink about the very medium of communication Apple is trying to obscure.

Messages in action. You’ll be using that drop down a lot.

Messages works like this. When you load up the app, you’re shown a tray of conversations you’ve had with various contacts across iMessage, GChat (Jabber), AIM and Bonjour. These conversations are all grouped together, so if you’ve chatted with your girlfriend through both GChat and iMessage, your chat history across all services will be merged by time under her name, as if you contacted her the same way every time.

The problem with Messages is that while it’s a great tool for contacting someone no matter where they might be, Apple’s attempts to keep the service you’re using less visible than the person you’re contacting inevitably leads to confusion.

By default, if you start chatting with someone through Messages, it’ll reach out to them the same way you contacted them last. In other words, if you messaged a friend on their iPhone to quickly tell them you’re running ten minutes late, then decide a few days later to try to have a long, involved conversation about a blind date you just had, that conversation will be sent as an iMessage to their iPhone unless you specifically switch the default to a more appropriate medium: GChat or AIM, say.

You can’t actually be reached at your iMessage phone number using Messages for Mac.

If all your friends have iPhones, iPads and Mountain Lion Macs, this isn’t a big deal. But if you have friends spread across a spectrum of services, you need to pay attention. And even sending an iMessage to a friend who you know has both Mountain Lion and an iPhone can be confusing, as you need to remember that an iMessage sent to their phone number will only reach them through Message on their iPhone, and not on their Mac or iPad, which can only receive iMessages at email addresses (although send them to phone numbers).  It’s confusing!

Once you get over this learning curve, though, Messages is a revelation. While iChat was always a bare-bone (and, to my tastes, irritatingly cutesy) IM client, Messages is a lot more robust and inoffensive, capable of consigning serious third-party IM clients like Adium to the Recycling Bin for most users. Moreover, the ability to send iMessages directly to a friend’s iPhone or iPad, or to reach out from your iPhone or iPad to someone using their Mac, is a powerful killer feature that is worth Mountain Lion’s $19.99 asking price in its own right.

Messages is a powerful killer feature worth $19.99 in its own right.

 

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