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Inside OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion GM: Notification Center gets more social, configurable

The new Notification Center service of OS X Mountain Lion, a feature borrowed from iOS, goes beyond its mobile sibling to offer a direct way to send tweets from the desktop. It does not however have iOS 5's live ticker updates for widgets such as Weather and Stocks, something OS X presents in Dashboard instead.

Notification Center is a new Mac feature based upon a similar service added to iOS 5 last year. The service, which creates a central repository for viewing and managing notifications from apps, the system itself and from network services, mirrored similar features previously introduced in Palm's WebOS and Google's Android on mobile devices, and bears some interface similarities to the Growl desktop notification service.

However, Apple's Notification Center is primarily tied to the company's cloud-based Push Notification Service, which enables app developers and Internet services such as Twitter, Skype, Instagram, Facebook or iCloud to relay alerts and pending messages to users across all of their devices. Other notification systems have largely centered on being more of a unified event log of various types of local system and application messages.

Push into the trillions

Apple began building its Push Notifications Service for iPhone OS 2.0 in 2008, originally as a way to allow inactive apps to receive data updates, but it returned to the drawing board for a redesign after realizing that the service would eventually handle far more traffic than initially anticipated.

After the summer 2009 release of iOS 3.0 with push notification support, Apple reported more than 2 billion push notifications had been sent to iOS apps by the beginning of November.

In 2010, Apple brought its push notifications to the Mac to power FaceTime. Early last year, for OS X Lion, "the whole range of callbacks for iOS push notifications" were added to NSApplicationDelegate, paving the way for the release of the new Messages app for Macs earlier this year.

This summer at WWDC, Apple's iOS head Scott Forstall noted that 1.5 trillion push messages have now been sent through its servers, and 7 billion new alerts are processed each day. Push notifications have now become a critical service for both iOS and OS X as message alerts and data feeds grow ever larger and more sophisticated, making a Notifications Center to manage these alerts an important feature for both platforms.

Pay attention to the events behind the curtain

Apple has also designed the Notification Center on both iOS and OS X Mountain Lion to be easy to read and unobtrusive. On iOS, the feature is pulled down as an overlay sheet, but in Mountain Lion, the feature takes over the top right corner formerly occupied by Spotlight search (which is now simply bumped over to the left one space.

When the Notification Center icon is clicked, it scoots the active desktop over to the left to reveal a nonstandard window type that appears to live underneath the desktop (below).

This region can be captured as a screen shot like any other window, but the resulting image appears to have a title bar (below, blank bottom half cropped off) similar to a Photoshop-style palette. There's currently no way to rip the Notification Center window free and position it on the desktop, however.

The Notification Center icon was originally a red bulb reminiscent of HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" in earlier developer builds of OS X, but recently changed to represent an abstract list of notifications. The GM build of Mountain Lion has not yet updated the icon it uses for Notification in System Preferences, which still appears as the original choice the company used for Notification Center in the menu bar.

The display area of Notification Center has a dark grey linen appearance similar to iOS, but does not include any regions for weather or stocks widgets. On OS X, those types of information are supposed to reside in Dashboard, which now exists as a Space (virtual desktop) that slides in from the left side when invoked. Instead, OS X's Notification Center just lists active and recent events, including messages and alerts from the App Store, Game Center, and Apple's iCloud Calendar and Reminder services.

In the latest GM release of Mountain Lion, issued yesterday, Apple has filled out Notification Center with FaceTime, Mail and Messages, as well as adding Safari and support for Twitter and other social network services. Safari has implemented a new method for web developers to send alerts from web pages directly to the Notification Center, elevating web apps on the Mac to a more equal footing with native desktop apps.