Mail gets its priorities straight

I've got a love-hate relationship with OS Xs Mail app. Well, thats not entirely accurate. Its more of a tolerate-hate relationship. During the Snow Leopard era, I got so fed up with it that I switched to Gmail, but the improvements to Mail in Lion lured me back. Mail hasnt received a major upgrade in Mountain Lion, but its support for Notification Center has led to the addition of one big feature: VIPs.

Its logical that youd want Mail to notify you when you get new mail. But for anyone who gets a large volume of mail, thats just too many notifications. So you can choose, from Mails Preferences window, just how you want Mail to use Notification Center: Every time a message comes in, just when a message comes to your Inbox, when you get a message from someone in your Contacts list, or when you get message from a VIP. (You can also trigger a notification via a Rule.)

To mark someone as a VIP, just open a message theyve sent you and move the cursor over their name. Just to the left, youll see the faint outline of a star. Click it and it will darken slightly. Thats it. That Person is now Very Important. Little stars show up next to their messages in your mailbox. That's how important they are.

Simply limiting notifications to people in your Contacts list would have been a pretty good feature, but this is better. Its an easy way to mark your most important people and make sure you know when they email you. I set Mail to notify me only when I get VIP messages, and after a few days of granting little gray stars to people, the system really started to work well.

Theres even a VIPs filter in the toolbar, so I can quickly see just mail from all my VIPs or even one particular person. This fall, with the release of iOS 6, this feature will also appear on iPhones and iPadsand presumably your VIPs will sync across your devices, which will be even more useful.

Now even when Ive got Mail in the background, I get a subtle reminder that someone important has sent me a message. Given the volume of mail I get in a day, and my tendency to forget to check it, thats invaluable.

This is not to say that I dont still have issues with Mail. I find its search functionality occasionally brilliant and occasionally useless, and I cant figure out why. It sometimes takes forever to check for new mail, especially over slow connections. But though it undoubtedly marks me as an old-school email user, I still prefer using an app to reading my mail in a web browser. Mail suffices, and with Mountain Lion, it just got a bit better.

Big in China

Apple's had huge success in China lately, most particularly with the iPhone. With Mountain Lion, the company is trying to improve support for those who write in Chinese as well as recognising that most of the popular sites that Apple integrates with OS X arent actually available within China.

On the text-input side, Mountain Lion offers better suggestions and corrections via a dynamically updated dictionary. Apparently English words are often inserted in Chinese text, so Mountain Lion allows the mixing of Pinyin and English without switching between keyboard layouts. Apple says Mountain Lion also doubles the number of characters recognized by trackpad-based handwriting recognition.

On the Internet services side, Mountain Lion offers support for Chinese alternatives to several worldwide services. Search-engine Baidu is now an option in Safari. Chinese microblogging service Sina weibo is supported in Share Sheets, just as Twitter is. In addition to Vimeo and Flickr, Mountain Lion will support sharing to Chinese video-sharing sites Youku and Tudou. And Mail, Contacts, and Calendar syncing will be supported to Chinese service providers QQ, 126, and 163.

According to Apple, most Mac users wont see these features. Mountain Lion will determinebased on your location and language settings, whether youve expressed an interest in Chinese features. For example, if you activate a Chinese keyboard layout. Once youve shown an interest in China, the support for the Chinese service providers surfaces. (As someone who has never been to China and doesnt speak Chinese, I couldnt test any of these features.)

New features, across all devices

The biggest story in the release of Mountain Lion isnt a particular feature. Its Apples new dedication to a yearly release cycle for OS X, and more important, to a cycle thats synchronized with the release of iOS.

Last years OS X Lionand Mountain Lion to a somewhat lesser extentoffer numerous feature additions that were brought back to the Mac from iOS. But Mountain Lion also offers some features that will be coming to iOS 6 this fall. Apples new operating-system strategy is not to copy iOS to the Mac, as some cynics might have said at the time Lion was announced. Rather, Apples strategy is to roll features out across all its devices, on both operating system platforms, simultaneouslyor at least as close to simultaneity as possible for a company that has two separate operating systems to update every year.

It seems to me that, in large part, Apple is no longer as focused on Mac features or iPhone features or iPad features as it is on features, manifested in appropriate ways across all of its different products. There will always be features that are tuned for the very different interactions that users have with their iPhones than with their MacBooks, but most of the basic ideas will span devices and operating systems, and most of them will sync together using iCloud.

OUR VERDICT

To those who would argue that these features water down the Mac, making it a simpler device more akin to an iPad with a keyboard rather than the heavy-duty device its often used as, I'd point to a feature like Power Nap. Allowing your MacBook Air to back up wirelessly while its closed and leaning against your nightstand doesnt seem like a regression; that seems like a manifestation of the always-on iOS philosophy, but translated into a quintessentially Mac-focused feature.

Yes, some of the features Apple has introduced in Lion and Mountain Lion are specifically designed for new and novice users, and thats appropriate given how many of those users there are. But features like Launchpad and Gatekeeper and Documents in the Cloud are easily ignored or overridden by expert users; on the Mac, Apple seems to have chosen a path that makes the out-of-the-box Mac experience better for new users without wrecking things for the experts.