Apple adds Messages to Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion.

Apple continues to blur the lines between SMS and instant messaging as Messages comes to Mountain Lion.

Last week I had a quick look at Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion and how the upgrade from Lion has given my MacBook Pro a new lease of life. This week I thought I might take a closer look at some of the more interesting areas where Apple has tried to united Mac OS on desktops and iOS on mobile gadgets. Today we'll dive into Messages and later in the week we'll take a closer look at Notifications.

Messages on Mountain Lion lets you message iOS5 devices and other Mountain Lion computers as easily as if you were texting them -- in theory. 

With iOS5 Apple has combined its iMessage platform with the phone's SMS system, so the Messages app automatically uses Apple's messaging platform rather than the telco's SMS system when communicating between two iOS5 devices. The beauty of this is that it's seamless to the end user when texting between iPhones. The only difference they notice is that messages are now in blue bubbles instead of green. I've found it to be very fast and reliable between the iPhones in my home, connected to wi-fi or Telstra's Next G.

There are a few added benefits to using Messages instead of sending SMS messages. Firstly you are notified when your message has been received and you can see if the other person is composing a reply. Secondly, you've just used up a fraction of your mobile internet allowance rather than racked up another SMS on your phone bill. 

The real bonus of the iMessage system is that iGadget owners can message iPads and iPod touches just as easily as sending an SMS, even if these devices don't have SIM cards. And it's this advantage that Apple is bringing to desktops with the new inclusion of the Messages application in Mountain Lion.

Messages on Mountain Lion is an instant messaging application designed to replace the old iChat. It's important to appreciate that Messages doesn't bring traditional SMS to Macs in Australia. As with iChat of old, sending SMS is restricted to the US (where they're sent via AIM). The fact Australians can't uses Messages to send and receive SMS messages to non-Apple devices means it's unlikely to completely replace your use of a smartphone for sending text messages (there are other ways to send SMS from desktops if you're interested). 

What Messages on Mountain Lion does do is let you link the desktop application with your Apple ID. Interestingly it's also compatible with AIM, Jabber, Yahoo! and Google Talk. This is surprising considering Apple seems determined to lure people away from such competitors, but I guess Apple acknowledges that these are the dominant platforms and supporting them is a sensible way to get people to try Messages and then gradually shift them across.

Messages on Mountain Lion lets you message iOS5 devices and other Mountain Lion computers as easily as if you were texting them -- in theory. Apple's FaceTime video chat isn't baked into Messages, but the desktop application lets you launch the FaceTime application. 

All this sounds great but unfortunately the iMessage platform is not as seamless as you might hope. The first limitation is that it doesn't always sync your end of the conversation between your various devices, even though it's meant to. If you start a conversation with someone using Messages on your iPhone and then switch to Messages on your Mac, sometimes you'll see the full previous conversation on your Mac and sometimes you won't. The same if you move from a Mac to an iPhone.

It can also take iMessages a long time to arrive when going between phones and desktops, even though the phone says the message has been delivered. Other times the desktop claims a message couldn't be sent, even though the phone received it. When Messages on the Mac does eventually catch up with your conversation, your messages can appear out of order. This inconsistency is the dealbreaker for me and I certainly wouldn't trust Messages on a Mac to send or receive important messages when it's just as easy to reach for the iPhone in my pocket which I know I can trust.

I've seen other people complaining that Messages on Mountain Lion is unreliable and it would seem it might have some teething problems. It certainly makes a poor first impression and can leave you thinking iMessage is a fragmented mess. For people who encounter these issues, it could take Messaging a while to win back their trust, especially for sending important messages.

Another complication with Messages on iPhones is that when you send messages to other iPhones, by default it displays them as sent from your Apple ID rather than sent from your phone number. If the receiver doesn't have your Apple ID in their iPhone's contact list, they might not know it's you (and you might not want to share that email address with them anyway). Even if your friend does have that email address in their contact list, their iPhone will start a new message thread for your Apple ID rather than mixing your messages in with the previous messages they received from your phone number. This is a mess.

In the Messages settings on an iPhone you can switch the Caller ID details you send from your Apple ID and your phone number, but it doesn't seem to always work. Even switching iMessage off and on again doesn't fix it and messages can still appear to come from your Apple ID when you've set the Caller ID to your phone number. 

The way I found to force it to switch Caller ID was to sign out of my Apple ID in the Messaging app on the iPhone. I could still send iMessages rather than text messages to other iPhones, but now they appeared to other iPhone owners to come from my phone number. When I logged back into my Apple ID the Caller ID seemed to stay as my phone number, but after awhile messages started appearing as they were coming from my Apple ID again (even though the Caller ID was clearly set to my phone number). A search online reveals that people have been having various issues with this for a while. Hopefully it's something Apple can sort out with iOS6.

So what's the verdict? The iMessage platform shows a lot of potential but right now it's a bit of a mess. I certainly wouldn't trust Messages on Mountain Lion with important messages. Your mileage may vary and you'll need to spend some time with it to see how it works and whether you can trust it.

Even when it works smoothly iMessage can be fragmented and Apple really needs to fix that Caller ID bug. As a workaround it should also offer the option to combine different feeds associated with the same contacts, so if someone receives an iMessage from your phone number or from your Apple ID it appears in the same thread. Considering all these issues, right now I'd say Messages on Mountain Lion is more trouble than it's worth and I don't intend to use it. It's worth trying for yourself, but test it out for a while before you trust it as much as trust sending iMessages between iPhones.