Charlie Fletcher is a former medical transcriptionist now serving as sector leader for the pharmaceuticals industry at Off The Record Research, a market research and reporting firm based in San Francisco. In writing his research reports, Fletcher conducts hundreds of interviews each month. He used to spend hours typing up interview notes by hand because he wasn’t able to find an efficient and cost-effective way to dictate into his Apple Macintosh computer. Problem was, as a Mac owner, he didn’t have many viable options when it came to machine dictation and transcription.
Until recently, running a dictation program on the Mac typically meant installing Parallels, Boot Camp, or a Windows emulation program and then installing something like Nuance Communications’ Dragon NaturallySpeaking dictation software on the Windows side. The process was not only time-consuming and costly, but because the software was not native to the Mac, users had no access to Mac systems and software while working in the Windows environment and often experienced speed, compatibility, and performance issues.
Fletcher didn’t consider it an option. "I have Parallels and Boot Camp on my machine," he says. "I use Windows emulation for everything else, but I didn’t want to do dictation through emulators. This is how I make my living."
So he typed...and typed...and typed some more, so much so that his wrists, hands, and fingers hurt by the end of each workday.
Many people in Fletcher’s shoes—especially those who have to use dictation software due to a disability, carpal tunnel syndrome, or just poor typing skills—simply abandoned their beloved Macs for PCs. But not Fletcher. Like so many other Mac users, he is rabid in his adherence to the Mac, often at great personal expense. He has rebuffed countless offers from his company to buy him a PC. "I don’t like PCs. I would sooner buy my own Mac," he says.
That’s why Fletcher is so excited about Dictate, the recent dictation software release from Salem, N.H.-based MacSpeech.
Fletcher’s joy aside, MacSpeech Dictate is likely to have far-reaching effects that have many believing it could threaten to break the decades-long stranglehold that PCs have had on the machine dictation market.
MacSpeech Dictate is, in essence, the Mac version of the very popular PC-based Dragon NaturallySpeaking program. MacSpeech developed Dictate through a licensing agreement with Nuance. And though Nuance could have entered the market with its own Mac version of NaturallySpeaking, Peter Mahoney, Nuance’s vice president and general manager of desktop dictation units, says the company looked for a partnership instead. "Now we’re at the point where Apple has done very well. We’re seeing a big growth in that area, and [partnering with MacSpeech] was a way for us to help participate in the market and respond to some of that demand.
"We are pleased to help MacSpeech provide a dictation solution, powered by Dragon NaturallySpeaking technology, to users that require a native Macintosh dictation application," he further said in a statement. "MacSpeech has intimate knowledge of the Macintosh platform and deep understanding of Macintosh users. This collaboration brings an unparalleled opportunity to provide the world’s best dictation technology in a solution that is 100 percent Mac."
And because it is 100 percent Mac, it delivers the same user experience Mac users have come to love. "When people think of the Mac, they think of it as more user-friendly than Windows," says Robin Springer, president of Computer Talk, a consulting firm specializing in the implementation of dictation and other hands-free technologies. "People have been trying to get Windows dictation programs to run on a Mac for years, but because they weren’t native [to the Mac], it was expensive." Users also faced issues with speed, performance, training, and compatibility, she says.
"What’s so exciting about Dictate is that it runs natively on the Mac, so you don’t get those issues," Springer adds.
As such, Dictate also allows users to operate, navigate, and control their Macs and Mac applications with voice commands. The software can be used to launch applications, open files, cut, paste, copy, print, scroll through files, compose email, format documents, and surf the Web. An "Available Commands" window can be accessed on-screen through a drop-down menu. The software even recognizes spoken commands separately from dictation, freeing the user from having to tell the software to change modes.
A Checkered Past
Previous attempts at desktop dictation software for the Mac were fraught with problems. The landscape has been dotted with near misses and failures that started in the early 1990s with Dragon Systems’ PowerSecretary, a software product that was slow and required users to pause between each word spoken. PowerSecretary simply disappeared after only a few years on the market.
Then came ViaVoice, which IBM launched in the latter part of the decade. Versions of ViaVoice were available for the Mac and PC, but the software was slow and clunky. It also required users to dictate into its built-in SpeakPad speech-enabled word processor and then transfer the transcribed text to a destination folder. In 2003, IBM gave the exclusive rights for ViaVoice to ScanSoft, which in 2005 merged with Nuance. By that time, Nuance had already acquired Dragon Systems, makers of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Though it still offers the IBM ViaVoice for Mac product, Nuance has put very little behind it, citing a lack of demand.
The only dictation product to show any real success in the Mac world was iListen, MacSpeech’s precursor to its new Dictate product. iListen used underlying speech recognition technology from Phillips, but the software was getting old and difficult to support, according to MacSpeech president and CEO Andrew Taylor. "iListen’s code base was written in 1998, and it was starting to get quite a bit of crust around the edges," he says.
iListen was also very limited in its capabilities. For starters, users often had to spend 15 minutes or more training it to recognize their voices. It was also slow and memory-intensive and lacked many of the more advanced features of other competitive products.