Minimal Mountain Lion

2012-03-05 by . 3 comments

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The recent announcements regarding the forthcoming addition to the menagerie of clawed operating systems from Cupertino was very interesting to me for a number of reasons.

Chief amongst them is “Wooo! New toys!”, closely followed by “Yay, more consistency!” and finally the slow dawning of realisation that an idea which has been floating around in my head for some time can now be put into action: Project Minimal Macbook! But first, some background…

When I first got my Macbook Air I was delighted with it, but had to rigidly enforce some new ideas about how I used it compared to my previous Macbook which had considerably larger storage capacity. I couldn’t even get close to restoring my data onto it, I had too much stuff, and so I had to work from a fresh install and keep in mind that I needed to be at least mindful, if not downright picky, about what software (and importantly “data”) I could afford to allow into its hallowed SSD halls.

Straight away out went iPhoto and iTunes. I could fill my puny 128Gb of space with my music and photos alone. Co-incidentally around about the same time that I got the Air I picked up my first non portable Mac, and my iPhone 4. That’s another story, but still, off you go dear data, there’s a nice fat spinning platter just waiting over there inside the iMac… But I couldn’t banish it forever; I may as well not have it if I can’t access it. So thank goodness for iTunes Home Sharing, and iPhoto Sharing. They might not be ideal solutions, but they allow me enough functionality to get by with only the occasional massive tantrum.

At which point, I suddenly suffer the timeless fate of those who are lucky (?) enough to have multiple machines, made more tedious by the addition of multiple platforms. What about the stuff that hasn’t got a Homeshare equivalent? What about my PDFs, my family tree data, diary entries, password files, half written blog posts and so on ad infinitum? What about not just having access to stuff just from my Macs, but from my iPhone also? What about having anything I can use on my iPhone, also available on my iPad? And so the hunt for the ultimate synchronisation mechanism begins.

Suffice to say, I found ways to handle most of my data, either through carefully choosing to use software that had the ability to use Dropbox or iCloud or other mechanisms to sync for me, or through the use of a third party synchronisation tool that monitored half of my home folder, or by just admitting that I won’t do X on machine Y.

At the point in which these steps were largely dealt with and stable (it will never actually be complete) I had amassed quite a collection of methods and software that did the job, but the inconsistencies and sheer number of solutions and amount of times the workflow was only 90% there put a bug in my ear that’s never quite been removed.

Do I really need all this software? Do I really need an App for keeping track of my books and DVDs, or can I just do it in a Spreadsheet? Do I need a recipes App, or just a bunch of tagged Textedit files? Twitter client, or visit the website? Will I only ever play podcasts on my iPhone, or do I need to synchronise my unplayed list?

You can see where this is going. And now I have the chance to put the thought to the test: Can I manage without anything but the pre-installed default apps on my Macbook Air running Mountain Lion.

Whenever I have previously thought about this, 2 simple words would stop me in my tracks: “Notes” and “Todos”. Ever used these features in Mail and iCal? Then you will feel my pain. Ever tried to sync them from OSX to iOS? Then you will share the nightmares. Many, many, hours and a not inconsiderable amount of cold hard cash has gone into messing around with replacement software that a) doesn’t suck so hard and b) syncs nicely, not just with my other Macs, but with my iOS devices too. Even when I thought I had nailed it, something would come up to bite me on the butt. A new App would appear on the radar promising to do stuff better. An iOS app that I liked but discounted because it previously didn’t have a Mac client suddenly would. An iOS app that was previously only for iPhone would get a Universal binary update to allow use on the iPad…

Each of these things would see me striving to compare the new possibilities against my existing setup. Do I need feature Z, or am I merely curious to see how it works? Is switching to App X going to be worth the hassle of migrating and converting my data? Do I actually need to be able sync my podcast playback position back to iTunes…

The freedom to have so many options available to me, so many choices to make on how to do just everyday simple things has started to become time consuming and hard work. I don’t want to have to put so much effort into managing the use of my computers, rather than just using them. I want to tick those tasks items off and get some work done, not spend hours fine tuning my tagging mechanism! Right now I have 5 task manager apps on my iPhone that I am in the process of using, evaluating or trying to export the data out of them so I can bin them…

It’s too much; I want another freedom, freedom from choice. And Mountain Lion gives me that. It finally covers the basics for almost any generalised computing activity, and makes it available across every device I own. There are no obvious holes in the integration. “Notes” and “Todos” (or should I now say “Reminders”) are finally something to look forward to just using rather than researching. Throw in to the mix that any temptation to download additional software has to run the gauntlet of compatibility with an as-yet unreleased operating system, and it’s a pretty powerful reason to try to keep things as stock as possible. Running on a Beta OS probably isn’t to be recommended, but given my data should be safe (and I have a fully operational other computer with all the 3rd party software anyone could wish for) it’s worth an experiment.

So with that in mind, I have the Developer Preview sat on my Macbook Air as we speak. And I am going to try my level best to not install a single piece of 3rd party software on it from now until it hits retail. Straight away I know this is an impossible task (1Password, anyone?) so I may make exceptions with strict criteria, namely it must be fully available on iOS (as a universal app) and OSX via the App Store if I require to use it on both types of device, and it must using iCloud or Bonjour sync only, and not require any single device to be the canonical source of the data that it will use or create.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck!

Dan Wilkinson (Stack Exchange user “stuffe”) is a regular Ask Different user, who would love to hear from you.  He can generally be found lurking in the chat room.  This post was originally published on his personal blog at

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  • Abhi Beckert says:

    There are online alternatives to 1Password, such as LastPass.

    LastPass is a HTML5 app, and has quite a good Safari extension which you can find from the “Get Extensions” page in Safari’s preferences (not to be confused with the binary plugin they also make available. I don’t use that one).

  • I admire your bravery!

    Personally, I don’t think something like this would work out for me. Keeping everything vanilla is attractive for good reasons, but specialized third party software is more attractive to me.

    A couple little examples:

    For Twitter, Osfoora offers several powerful features over the web interface that I wouldn’t want to give up. One of those, ironically, is synchronization with Tweet Marker.

    The same can be said of Byword: a distraction-free writing experience is so valuable to me that I wouldn’t be able to give it up.

    To me, the awesome software available for Mac is one of the things that draws me to the platform the most. Maybe that’s just because I’m so picky and like to tinker so much 🙂

    Best of luck you, keep us posted.

  • Stuffe says:

    Well, for sure I have had to use the iMac a number of times for things that I just didn;t have installed on the Macbook Air, but a lot of the time it was also plain more appropriate to use the larger machine. Thus far the lack of Flash has actually caused more issues than anything else. The only 3rd party product I have installed currently is Minecraft…which I using to create a house rennovation design!

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