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Speech recognition took first place in last week's poll on future technologies, so it's appropriate that this week Matt Neuburg looks at Apple's PlainTalk speech recognition technology, along with the alternative speech interfaces offered by QuicKeys and ListenDo. Segueing from voice to print, Kirk McElhearn returns with a review of David Pogue's "Missing Manual" on Mac OS 9, and we ask what factors help you decide to buy computer books.
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Quicken 2001 Ships -- Intuit has begun shipping Quicken 2001 for Macintosh, the latest version of its market-dominating personal finance package. Quicken 2001 offers a global search and replace feature which operates across accounts, the capability to notice repeated payments and proactively remind you they're coming due, plus a software update feature which can automatically notify you when updates or bug fixes are available. Intuit also claims over 500 financial institutions now support online banking functions in the Mac version of Quicken, though less than 70 currently support direct connections - the others merely provide data you can download into Quicken. The Windows version of Quicken 2001 also sports features missing on the Mac side, including a Smart Reconcile feature which can find and correct common register errors and improved portfolio management features. Quicken 2001 requires a PowerPC-based Mac running Mac OS 8.6 or higher, 32 MB RAM or more, and a CD-ROM drive; it costs $60, although buyers are eligible for a $20 mail-in rebate if they can provide a photocopy of the packing slip for Quicken 2001. [GD]
Poll Preview: Them Tomes, Them Tomes -- Literally hundreds of new computer books appear every year, covering the latest versions of software, passing on tips and techniques for creating everything from Web sites to digital videos, and opining on the state of technology and the industry. Frankly, it's overwhelming (and if you don't believe me, take a gander at the size of the computer section in a large bookstore). But despite the books whose pages should have been allowed to remain in tree form, there are true gems, books that offer assistance you can't easily find elsewhere or that provide a unique perspective in a form far too detailed for a magazine or Web site. This week's poll question, then, asks, "Which factors most influence your decision to purchase a computer book?" Perhaps it's a combination of a review, special pricing, and being able to flip through a copy first, but whatever the specifics, register your opinions on our home page (and if you never buy computer books, there's an answer for you too). [ACE]
by Geoff Duncan <email@example.com>
As we approach the year 2001, we don't yet have flying cars, a space program for the masses, or (thankfully) red-eyed artificial intelligences with a predilection for shooting crewmen out of airlocks. However, we still live in a time of great technological advancement. In last week's poll we asked, "Which technologies do you most want to use on your Mac or on future Macs?" A number of these existing technologies may enhance future Macs - and a number are available today, if only in preliminary form.
Speech Recognition and Dictation -- Garnering 58 percent of responses, speech recognition narrowly edged out All-Wireless Components as the most-requested technology. The capability to talk to your computer is available today in Apple's own limited PlainTalk speech recognition (which ships as part of Mac OS 9), and in products like IBM's ViaVoice, which offers continuous speech recognition on the Mac. (See Matt Neuburg's article on PlainTalk in this issue, and last week's review of ViaVoice.) Being able to talk to a computer is a long-running staple of science fiction; however, today's products are specialized and restricted, so there's plenty of room for the technology to expand. And if you think dictating a novel, letter, or email message sounds like paradise, remember that learning to dictate effectively is often more difficult than learning to type.
All-Wireless Components -- The next-highest category, with 52 percent of the responses, means getting rid of the rat's nest of cabling surrounding your Macintosh. Apple has recently taken a few steps in this area with AirPort wireless networking and the all-in-one USB, power, and video cables on its new displays. Wireless keyboards and mice have existed for many years, and wireless peripherals (like scanners, hard drives, and printers), and even wireless monitors are certainly within the realm of possibility. (Indeed, printers that can receive print jobs via infrared have been around for a while.)
Holographic or Heads-Up Displays -- Long employed in movies and television, these options may be ways to replace monitors or traditional computer screens, and made up 31 percent of the responses. A holographic display could show a 3-D computer interface manifested in space in front of the user, although these may not be bright enough for many tasks or for outdoor use. Heads-up displays vary in implementation but use images that are superimposed or drawn in front of a user's surroundings. Heads-up displays might appear as goggles or headsets which project an image directly on to the retina - perhaps ideal for PowerBook owners! - or which are projected onto a surface (such as a visor, glasses, or a windshield).
Handwriting Recognition -- With 28 percent of responses, and tying with Extreme Portability, handwriting recognition is the capability for a computer to accept handwritten input, usually on a tablet or another pressure-sensitive area of a device. Apple's now-defunct Newton PDA - particularly Newton 2.0 - offered good handwriting recognition on its entire screen; the ever-popular Palm devices recognize a stylized handwriting (Graffiti) in a small area at the bottom of the screen. Handwriting recognition is a comparatively real technology, but it has yet to make its way into mainstream personal computer products, possibly because of the added cost of providing a writing surface, and the difficulty (or impossibility) of replacing the keyboard on current computers.
Extreme Portability -- Also known as "wearability," extreme portability means shrinking a computer system down to the point where it's highly portable or can actually be worn by a person with little difficulty. There's a great deal of research now into wearable computers, and this sort of portability is likely to use other technologies mentioned here - speech recognition, heads-up displays, wireless components, and more.
Biometric Security -- Security-conscious readers, accounting for 20 percent of the responses, are looking forward to biometric security, which establishes the identity of a computer user using unique characteristic(s) of that person, rather than using a password or other access methods that aren't tied to a particular individual. Mac OS 9's Voice Verification feature is an example of biometric security in that it enables a person to log into a Macintosh by speaking a passphrase which the computer analyzes for similarity to recordings of the same person speaking the passphrase. Other forms of biometric security could include fingerprint or palm-print verification, or retinal scans.
VR or Immersive Interfaces -- Nineteen percent of the responses were for these types of alternative interfaces, which plunge users into an artificial environment, possibly blocking some or all of the user's perceptions of the physical world. Users typically manipulate data or interact with the computer using gestures (a haptic interface) and are sometimes represented by a computer-generated object called an avatar. The idea of virtual reality entered the popular consciousness with William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer and remains a staple of popular culture, as recently exemplified by the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix. Although current technology doesn't live up to the pop-culture hype, early consumer-oriented VR products have already appeared, and virtual reality applications are performing growing roles in specialized fields like engineering and medicine. The technology has obvious mass-market applications in entertainment and games.
Brainwave Recognition -- Fifteen percent of responses were registered for brainwave recognition, in which a device actually analyzes electrical signals in your brain and translates them to input for your computer or other devices. Brainwave-driven products are available today from IBVA Technologies - they're a long way from telepathy, but they open up new possibilities for user interfaces and computer access for the disabled.
Cup Holder and Other -- Of course, in this era of monster SUVs, what future Macintosh would be complete without a cup holder or three? The popular beverage storage device (which is not the same tray that holds your CDs) picked up 13 percent of responses, while 9 percent were thrown at the mysterious Other category. Only time - and a look through the TidBITS Talk discussion on the topic - will reveal the technologies for which those votes were cast.
by Kirk McElhearn <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In 1990, I bought my first Macintosh, a PowerBook 100 that included a whopping 2 MB of RAM, a 20 MB hard disk, and System 7. As a new computer user, I was amazed at how easy it was to use, and, especially, how simple and clear it was to manage the system software.
Those days have changed. My latest Mac, an iMac DV SE, came with 128 MB of memory, a 13 GB hard disk, and (here's the big difference) Mac OS 9. Although I no longer have the old PowerBook for comparison, I remember the System Folder taking up only a few megabytes of hard disk space. On my iMac, the default System Folder (without any third party additions) takes up 175 MB for 2,179 items. Needless to say, the Mac OS does a lot more than before, but it has become far more complex and confusing.
For a guide to the new operating system, I turned to the much-hyped Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual, by David Pogue (Pogue Press/O'Reilly, 2000, $19.95). (David also worked with TidBITS publisher Adam Engst on Crossing Platforms: A Macintosh/Windows Phrasebook; see "Macintosh-Windows Translation Dictionary" in TidBITS-509.)
Not in the Box -- There is a trend in the software industry that started a few years ago, and is becoming the norm: many programs no longer ship with printed manuals. TidBITS commented on this back in mid-1998 in "The Death of Documentation" in TidBITS-428. In the best of cases, you get a well-formatted PDF file of the manual; sometimes the manual is composed of HTML files (such as the help system included with Mac OS 9); and, in the worst case, you get some kind of Internet-based help that is neither practical nor easy to use. For complex applications or system software, these help systems are seldom sufficient. Also, accessing electronic help often obscures the program about which you're seeking (leaving you frequently switching between overlapping windows) or changes the state of your computer, further confusing matters. One of the great advantages of a printed manual is that it can sit on a desk or your lap for easy reference without altering what appears on screen or changing what the computer is doing.
I consider myself a Mac power user, and have never felt the need for a third-party book telling me how my Macintosh works. I have always managed to find enough information from user groups, magazines, and electronic publications like TidBITS, but Mac OS 9 seemed far more daunting than previous versions.
I don't know exactly what I expected to find, but I must say I was surprised. There are many new functions in Mac OS 9 that I knew little about, some functions in other recent operating system versions that I never really explored, and some simple tricks that I never considered.
I actually read the book from cover to cover, so I could see exactly what I was missing (but I am one of those people who likes reading computer manuals). After having discovered many new details of Mac OS 9, I've dipped back into this book often for more. For instance, the presentations of new features, such as Multiple Users and the encryption options, gave me an awareness of how these features work. The chapter on managing memory, while not totally new information to me, is well designed and gives a crash course in understanding both how the Mac OS uses memory and how to tweak it for maximum performance.
The book's organization reflects the way a new user might approach a Macintosh: first the Mac desktop, followed by help using applications, then the components of the system itself, details of getting online, and finally networking. The presentation of the Mac OS 9 desktop is a fine and detailed introduction to the operating system's basic interface features. You learn how to tweak and configure the desktop, windows, and folders to fit your needs.
From there the book goes on to discuss applications: how they work, how to manage memory, and an introduction to AppleScript. This last section was, indeed, no more than an introduction, and provides little information on programming with the AppleScript, which is a bit of a shame. AppleScript is one of the key unappreciated features of the Mac OS, and a better presentation could show just how useful it can be.
Part three examines the components of Mac OS 9 and is probably the most useful section to me. I've often wondered exactly what all those extensions and control panels do, and I finally found out about many of them that I could disable to save memory. For example, it's useful to know that if you are not running a network, you can safely disable both the AppleTalk and File Sharing control panels. If you're not planning on having multiple users work on your Mac, you can turn off Multiple Users. Tips like these free up memory for other uses, and can be a boon if your computer contains a relatively small amount of RAM, such as the 32 MB in the early iMac or iBook configurations. (You can also find detailed information about the contents of your System Folder using the shareware InformINIT or Extensions Overload; Casady & Greene's Conflict Catcher also includes an extensive reference library.)
Two short chapters give an overview of using the Mac with the Internet, and the next section talks about setting up a network with your Macs. Then the book examines a few disparate subjects, such as printing, sound and video, speech recognition, and ends up with three appendices on the different menu commands, installing the Mac OS, and troubleshooting.
Encyclopedia Macintosh -- There are few negatives in this book. The main one that stands out is the author's claim that the book "is designed to accommodate readers at every technical level," but real beginners should stay away from this book. If you are just starting out with the Macintosh, you would be better off looking for a book written expressly for beginners. The problem here is that the book is written more like an encyclopedia or other reference book. It is not a tutorial, even though, as I said above, the order of chapters does reflect the way one might approach a Mac. But once you get to know your Mac, this book would be an ideal reference manual, thanks also in part to an excellent index.
The book carries David Pogue's distinctively light-handed writing style, and the layout makes it one of the most visually satisfying computer books I have ever read; kudos to designer Phil Simpson and the rest of the book's production team. The typeface is easy to read, sidebars and figures are prominent and informative, and section titles are reversed in a black box at the page edges, making it easy to thumb through the book to find what you are looking for. Also, like other O'Reilly titles, the book has a lie-flat binding that helps prevent pages from flipping on their own when the book sits on your desk.
While this book lacks the detailed tutorial quality that would make it ideal for beginners, it will be very helpful to any Mac users who are beyond the beginner stage, want to know more, or who desire a reference manual to everything in Mac OS 9.
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer living in a village in the French Alps.]
by Matt Neuburg <email@example.com>
In TidBITS-544, I wrote about continuous speech recognition on the Mac using IBM's ViaVoice, which enables you to dictate sentences and have the computer type them. ViaVoice also does some discrete speech recognition, meaning you can say certain predefined commands to it, such as to select the next word, paste text, or turn off the microphone. But if you only want to give your computer spoken commands, you probably can, right now, for free - with Apple's own system-level discrete speech recognition feature, PlainTalk.
What Day Is It? PlainTalk's first rumblings were felt in 1990, when speech recognition labs complained of a sudden "brain drain." Apple, sparing no expense, was hiring every researcher it could find. After about a year of intensive work, Apple began demonstrating the fruits of its labors, code-named Casper, which became publicly available as PlainTalk in the AV Macs of 1993; it was then made standard in 1994 as part of System 7.1.2, with the emergence of the PowerPC-based Macs. Since then, all PowerPC Macs, and even some 68K machines, have been awaiting your spoken orders. Yet, many users are unaware of this, because speech recognition isn't present by default - you must specify it explicitly when you do a system installation. To install it, insert your Mac OS CD-ROM, launch Mac OS Install, and when you get to the Install Software screen, click the Customize button, select English Speech Recognition, and deselect everything else before continuing with the installation process.
Open Speech Help -- PlainTalk speech recognition appears as four software components. The Speech control panel must be present. The Speech Recognition extension enables any program to do speech recognition; but of itself it does nothing, so Apple also provides an interface, the Speakable Items extension that lets you open any item in your Speakable Items folder (which is in your Apple Menu Items folder) by saying the item's name.
There is also a hardware component - the microphone. Apple designed a special microphone for speech recognition, called the PlainTalk microphone, recognizable by its longer jack and unusual shape. This almost killed speech recognition on the Mac, because people didn't know how to use the microphone (and Apple, as usual, provided no instructions), so they thought it was broken. You do not speak into the "face" of the microphone; you lay the microphone on top of your monitor with the "face" upwards, and speak into the "top" of the microphone, which faces you. Some recent machines with built-in microphones don't need this external one; but iMacs do require it despite the built-in microphone, and the situation is confusing for other machines as well - if in doubt, perform an Apple Tech Info Library search on "plaintalk and microphone" and pray for clarification. Snazzy noise-cancelling speech recognition headsets work too.
With speech recognition installed, go into the Speech control panel and set up Listening options: do you want to have to hold down a key, such as Escape, all during each command, or do you want to leave recognition on constantly, perhaps prefixing your commands by some introductory expression (such as "Computer" or "Yo!")? Next, turn on Speakable Items. A "helper" floating window appears, showing that Speakable Items is running, and you can give commands; "show me what to say" is a good first command. Depending on your choice of animated icon, you'll see various images suggesting that speech recognition is sleeping, listening, obeying, or confused.
Make This Speakable -- PlainTalk doesn't need training for your voice, but before you can say anything the system must have a complete list of everything you are allowed to say; recognition consists of finding the best match from that list. In the Speakable Items interface, the list is precisely the contents of the Speakable Items folder. Unfortunately, as the list grows, PlainTalk becomes less confident and more likely to execute a mismatch or report no match at all. You should remove from the Speakable Items folder every command you're not likely to use; and you should take advantage of an important feature, new in Mac OS 9, that lets you associate a command with a specific application, by putting it in a folder with that application's name inside the Application Speakable Items folder.
What sort of thing can a command be? Basically, it's anything you can open from the Finder. If the command is an alias, it opens a file or a folder, or starts up an application. If the command is a stand-alone AppleScript, it runs the script. Many such scripts are included (don't forget to look in the cleverly concealed More Speakable Items folder), and you can of course write your own, so you can do whatever AppleScript can do. A particularly cool feature in Mac OS 9 is that speech recognition is itself scriptable, so you can write an AppleScript script that provides its own list of things the user can say, responding to each in some custom manner; to learn more, download the Scripting Speech help module.
Speak in Macro -- AppleScript, however, has its limits: it can drive only programs that are scriptable. If this falls short of your needs, consider version 5 of QuicKeys, which appeared a few months ago. I've discussed QuicKeys extensively in TidBITS, and version 5's support for speech recognition is significant. QuicKeys, as you know, is a macro program, meaning that it can type, push buttons, choose menu items, and click the mouse; now, through speech recognition, a QuicKeys action can be triggered by your voice.
QuicKeys' speech interface is simple but clever. The command phrase that triggers an action is up to you: it can be the action's name, but it needn't be. Moreover, although QuicKeys is independent of Speakable Items (because they provide two different interfaces to Speech Recognition), the two can coexist, and can be turned on and off individually; the "helper" floating window is present if either is on. As with Speakable Items, you can specify an introductory expression as a prefix to command phrases; you can thus channel your command to the correct listener. For example, in the Speech Control panel, I specified that Escape must be held down during a command, with no prefix; but in QuicKeys I specified that commands must be prefixed by "QuicKeys". Now "What time is it?" works, and "QuicKeys press Home" works too.
Turn Speakable Items Off -- Another discrete speech-recognition offering is MacSpeech's ListenDo, a Speakable Items replacement. The two are not compatible, but that's okay, because ListenDo is better; indeed, it's what Apple should have done in the first place. Speakable Items is clumsy to operate and maintain: you toggle it off and on in a control panel, view commands as items in the Finder, and edit scripts in some third place (such as Apple's Script Editor). But ListenDo provides a single centralized interface: it's an application, so recognition is on when it's running and off when it's not, and its windows let you view and organize commands and edit their scripts. Also, every item in Speakable Items is an application, so each time you perform a command, you add it to your Recent Applications list under the Apple menu, which is maddening; with ListenDo, that doesn't happen.
Furthermore, like QuicKeys, ListenDo is a macro program, with native commands for typing, pushing buttons, choosing menu items, and clicking the mouse. But ListenDo improves upon QuicKeys in two important ways. First, it's free. Second, it provides a completely dynamic interface to choosing from menus: you say a menu's name, that menu pops down and holds, you say an item in that menu, and the menu item is chosen. Where both AppleScript and ListenDo's native macro abilities fall short, you can supplement them with another scriptable macro program; for example, when I say "Close all but the front window," ListenDo tells OneClick to perform this action.
Tell Me a Joke -- With all this rich choice of options for ordering my computer about, which do I personally use on a daily basis? ListenDo is my favorite, but the real answer is none, because I find PlainTalk speech recognition technology to be flaky and undependable. It's a toss-up whether a command will be understood at all; even worse, PlainTalk has an unaccountable habit of going deaf. This happens on both my computers, so I tend to feel that the problem lies at system level, not in some extension conflict or machine-specific shortcoming (though I'd be happy to be proven wrong). And because the problem is systemic, it doesn't matter which interface I use, because they all rely on Speech Recognition, which is what isn't working. The only solution is to reinitialize PlainTalk by toggling Speakable Items, QuicKeys speech, or ListenDo off and on; and that's too much trouble
However, if you're among the many people longing for speech recognition on the Mac, and you haven't yet tried Apple's own speech recognition technology, don't turn a deaf ear to the easy availability of PlainTalk and the improvements on it offered by QuicKeys 5 and ListenDo.
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
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