From the February 2012 digital issue.
When Armageddon comes, I am convinced that it will not be the result of an epic battle between good and evil, or even between the haves and the have-nots. The battle that destroys the known universe will be, as it has been for several decades now, between Microsoft, Apple and Google.
Everywhere you turn, you are confronted by the armies of these three giants, scrambling for another point of market share and crushing or buying any third parties that get in their way. And now these three forces have found a new battleground in software that enables voice recognition and commands.
You know, the software that lets the crew of Star Trek simply speak in English to search databases and execute commands. There are essentially four players in this tech area:
- Microsoft, which is scrambling to improve on their lead in this market. Microsoft has bundled free speech recognition software with its operating systems since Windows XP, improving the system year after year (hint: you’ll find it in the “Accessories” folder). For the record, the Windows 7 iteration works amazingly well. In fact I’m dictating this paragraph via the Speech recognition program. If there’s a weakness to Microsoft’s implementation, it is that editing capabilities are very limited.
- Apple has built some limited speech recognition capabilities into its OS X operating system to assist in navigation. For dictation and editing, you will need third party “Dictate” software from Nuance. But this is just the tip of the iceberg for Apple, which has built some fairly strong voice command capabilities into the iPhone 4S, and has pushed a new, voice-driven application in its “Siri” personal assistant application.
- Google has no intention of being left behind in this new technology. The company has bundled voice capabilities for search into its Chrome browser, and offers robust voice command and search capabilities into the Android operating systems for cell phones.
- And then there is Nuance. This company is best known for its Dragon Naturally Speaking software, which cropped up in ads during the last holiday season. It is sharp, professional-level program whose only limitation is its learning curve, which is somewhat higher than that of the other products. In addition, just before last Christmas the company purchased a cell phone app maker called Vlingo, an up-and-coming player in the cell phone voice command arena with a decent app that works on Apple, Google and Blackberry devices. Whether Nuance becomes the fourth major player in this cat fight, or is simply absorbed by one of the other three, the battle is shaping quickly.
It would be nice to point clearly to a winner among these contestants, but that isn’t going to happen this year.
In the cell phone arena, Vlingo and Siri are competing with in-built voice command systems, and none of them do it well. Siri is that the moment just the personal assistant app it claims to be, with virtually no editing or message handling capabilities. Vlingo has excellent features to read and write messages, but does a horrible job with simple phone calls.
On the desktop, Dragon Speaking Naturally takes top honors as a general speech recognition and command system, but comes with the highest price tag. Microsoft Speech Recognition is free, but stumbles in a number of areas. It correctly recognizes the word “colloquialism,” but doesn’t handle “ain’t” and “y’all.” Google’s system requires the user to use the company’s Chrome browser, a program whose main function is to track everything you do online and sell that information to advertisers.
But look for things to change rapidly in 2012. With this many major players in the game and big money being thrown at the program, we can expect to see new products to shove their way into the fray, and new versions of existing products to debut regularly.
For these new products and versions to gain any traction, however, they will need to do three things that none of the products do today. First, they will have to perform easily what we do every day on our devices. An application that takes six steps to do what you can do with a single mouse-click today is not useful.
Second, they need to better accommodate differences in speaking styles, particularly the regional dialects of English. If I must learn to speak like a Maine Yankee to use the software, I won’t bother.
And finally, they must be able to work with additional hardware. If they cannot work off of the microphone and speakers built into my device, they are too much trouble to work with.
Otherwise, we have four armies in contention. Let the battles begin.
A compendium of ideas, products, rants and raves from the viewpoint of the author. Not that the author has no financial interests in any of the products mentioned. Feel free to disagree, or to share your ideas by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Internet Site of the Month: Microsoft Windows Speech Recognition. (http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows7/What-can-I-do-with-Speech-Recognition). This site outlines the free voice command and speech recognition included in Windows 7 (other sites cover the program under Vista and Windows XP). Useful primarily because the program is free and is garnering great reviews. But you’ll need this site to figure out what commands will work and where.
Tablets and eReaders. If there ever was a year of the tablet, it was 2011. The trend of electronic book readers started by the Kindle has blossomed into a rich and robust marketplace for eReaders of every stripe. Meanwhile, Apple’s iPad had touched off a tablet revolution that now has low-cost devices of every kinds flowing to the marketplace. The only hitch? Many of these devices have been crippled to appease the cell phone companies. Look for this tyranny of the cellular companies to begin to unravel as the market grows and no longer needs Verizon and AT&T as a marketing channel.
Forum Stuffing. In times past, you could look to online forums for technical information, advice and even honest reviews of products. Those days are over. Today’s tech forums are largely clogged with paid endorsers, posters who can’t differentiate between knowledge and opinions, and psychotic flame throwers who simply enjoy controversy. If you have a favorite – free – technology forum that has avoided this infection, we’d love to hear about it.
Blackberry. Considering its nearly unbreakable hold on the enterprise market with its Blackberry products, Canadian firm Research In Motion hasn’t done itself any favors in the past year. Its stock is down some 80 percent, the Blackberry Playbook tablet has been a marketing and technical disaster, and the company has announced that its new lines of phones based on the Blackberry 10 operating system won’t be seen until at least near the end of 2012. This is a cat that has used up all of its lives, and those who are inclined to invest in Blackberry technologies for their firms should be very, very careful.
Lack of Accessories. No matter what tech gadget you purchase, one thing will be true. The device will lack decent accessories. Chargers will be slow, batteries weak, charging stands non-existent and mounting hardware left to the whims of third-party companies halfway around the globe. Because of the sheer number of devices thrown into the marketplace each year, there simply isn’t a good market for accessories tailored to the size, shape and inputs of every device. Sigh! At some point, the marketplace will settle down. Until then, keep putting your device in the coffee cup holder and hope it charges by the time you get to your next destination.
Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for Printers. Last year, we helped to expose the shady dealings of printer manufacturers, who virtually give away their hardware in order to reap excessive profits on printer cartridge refills. Using hardware as a loss leader wasn’t the shady part…it was the refusal of these companies to provide information about what it actually cost to print a page, and their use of the courts to suppress competition. Fortunately, a few companies have rallied to the cause of end users, providing this information and /or lower the cost of supplies. Kudos to Kodak and Kyocera for leading this pro-consumer movement.