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macOS 10.12 Sierra to Succeed OS X 10.11 El Capitan

During the WWDC 2016 keynote today, Apple took the wraps off the replacement to OS X 10.11 El Capitan. The change that will affect the most people is the least technical — Apple is renaming its Mac operating system from OS X to macOS to make it consistent with the company’s other operating systems, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. It’s a good move — as a name, “OS X” had no connection with the Mac, ever since Apple dropped the word “Mac” during the days of 10.7 Lion. And while the “X” in OS X both moved on from Mac OS 9 and referenced the new Unix underpinnings, all of Apple’s operating systems are now based on Unix, and that’s not the selling point it was when Macs were much less stable.

Apple is continuing both the same version numbering and its recent practice of naming versions of the operating system after inspiring locations in California. So we’ll be writing about macOS 10.12 Sierra for the next 18 months. With Sierra, Apple is once again alluding to a rock formation, although a much bigger one than Yosemite’s El Capitan — the Sierra Nevada mountain range in this case.

Tying the Apple Ecosystem Together — Most striking among the changes in macOS Sierra are those that integrate the Mac more deeply into Apple’s hardware ecosystem. For instance, the new Auto Unlock feature eliminates the need to enter your login password if you’re wearing an associated Apple Watch. Regardless of the improvements in watchOS 3, Auto Unlock may spur Apple Watch sales on its own — I get sick of typing my login password repeatedly and would have a stronger one yet if I seldom had to enter it. Apple said nothing about other authentication capabilities, but wouldn’t it be great if wearing an Apple
Watch eliminated all requests for your Apple ID password, on all your devices? I’d pay for that.

We just published a big article about the clipboard (see “OS X Hidden Treasures: Copy and Paste,” 11 June 2016), but it will need updating once macOS Sierra ships, thanks to Universal Clipboard, which extends the clipboard concept across all your devices. Copy some text from your Mac and paste it on your iPhone instead of typing! The only unfortunate aspect of this capability is that it has been provided by a variety of third-party apps so far, and they may have trouble competing with Apple’s Universal Clipboard unless they can offer additional capabilities.

Apple is enhancing iCloud Drive in an interesting way. Although it will remain largely useless for collaboration in comparison to Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box, macOS Sierra can make the contents of your Desktop and Documents folders available across all your devices via iCloud Drive. This will likely require paying Apple for more space — I don’t know about you, but my folders contain over 26 GB of data. Given that iCloud’s monthly prices in the United States are just $0.99 for 50 GB, $2.99 for 200 GB, and $9.99 for 1 TB, it might be worth it.

Finally, Apple Pay will make its way to the Web, and with Apple Pay support in Safari, you’ll be able to pay for online purchases with ease, authenticating your credit card details with Touch ID on your iPhone or by double-clicking the side button on your Apple Watch. Using Apple Pay ensures that your credit card details are never shared with the vendor, eliminating the possibility of them being compromised in a security breach. We’ll see if Chrome and Firefox are allowed to add Apple Pay support as well.

macOS Sierra, or macOS Siri? — Although the integration features may be compelling for many people, the marquee addition to macOS Sierra is Siri. From the demo, it appears you must press a key or click a Dock icon to invoke Siri, though a “Hey, Siri” option would be welcome for those who don’t share office space.

Siri can do many of the same things in macOS as it can in iOS, such as sending messages, locating files, and searching the Internet. When searching for files, you can even refine searches after they find too many results on the first try. Since Siri results are quite ephemeral, you can pin them in Notification Center for later reference. And the results of Siri searches can be transferred from the results window to other apps via drag-and-drop, just as you’d expect on the Mac.

Some of Apple’s example Siri commands include:

  • Show the PDFs in my Downloads folder.
  • How much free space do I have on my Mac?
  • What’s the weather in Lake Tahoe?
  • Show the photos from yesterday.
  • Add Laura to my 10 AM meeting.

El Capitan has voice dictation even now, so we expect that to be in macOS Sierra as well, hopefully with whatever enhancements Apple has made in general.

In the iOS portion of the keynote, Apple said that it was opening Siri up to developers. No mention was made of that during the description of Siri in macOS, but we hope the APIs are available on both platforms.

Photographs and Memories — Apple spent quite a bit of time demoing new features in Photos, and honestly, it was a bit of a jumble. Photos gains a number of automatic recognition capabilities, so it will be able to identify who is in photos, as well as objects and scenery in the photos, all without manual training. You’ll be able to search for photos by what’s in them, along with date and location.

A built-in People album will automatically bring together all photos of the people in your life, thanks to improved facial recognition technology. Returning from iPhoto is a Places album that displays all your photos on a world map.

The new version of Photos will use this technology to create Memories, which is also the name of a new top-level tab in Photos that automatically creates slideshows and shareable collections of your best photos. We’ll see how well it works when it ships, but since putting together photo slideshows is relatively time-consuming now, it could be worthwhile.

Other Peaks in Sierra — Apple promised a number of other fascinating-sounding changes in macOS Sierra.

For those who have trouble fitting their data into the flash storage on a small MacBook Air, for instance, Optimized Storage may prove helpful. Most notably, it automatically moves rarely used old files to iCloud, likely creating another reason to pay for more iCloud storage. It also reminds you to delete used app installers, and on its own can remove duplicate downloads, caches, logs, and the like. It will even automatically delete items that have been in the Trash for 30 days, a feature that Windows has had for ages. Apple tried it on a system with 20 GB free and Optimized Storage freed up another 130 GB. Nevertheless, lots of questions surround Optimized Storage.

Messages in macOS Sierra won’t get all the features Apple is adding to the app in iOS 10, but it will be able to display them. Similarly, some of the design changes in iOS 10’s Music app will be making their way to iTunes; it remains to be seen if that will be sufficient to make it usable again.

Some time ago, Apple added tab support to the Finder, following along with the tab capabilities of Safari and every other Web browser on the planet. In macOS Sierra, apps that currently open documents in their own windows will be able to confine them to tabs, something that a few apps like Adobe’s InDesign and Photoshop do already.

Finally, for those who like having some video in the background at all times, macOS Sierra will take a page from iOS 9 on the iPad and add Picture in Picture. You’ll be able to float a resizable video window from Safari or iTunes in any corner of your screen while you pretend to get work done.

Compatibility and Availability — Regarding hardware compatibility, macOS Sierra will run on MacBook and iMac models released in late 2009 and later, and on MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and Mac Pro models released in 2010 and later. This is a major change from the compatibility chart for 10.8 Mountain Lion, 10.9 Mavericks, 10.10 Yosemite, and 10.11 El Capitan, all of which supported machines as far back as 2007.

As much as it can be frustrating when an older Mac is dropped off the back of the wagon like this, we’re still talking 6–7 years of backward compatibility, and a lot of niggling little issues probably go away because the hardware is newer and more consistent.

macOS Sierra is available for developers now, and Apple will open a public beta next month if you want to get your hands on it early. It’s scheduled for release “this fall,” which will likely mean September or October given past performance. Like all recent releases, it will be free.

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