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IBM’s Chatty Revolution – ViaVoice for Mac OS X

The goal of a continuous speech recognition program is to let you dictate what your computer should type. In December 1999, when IBM shipped the first Mac version of such a program, the sound from most users wasn’t dictation but a groan. ViaVoice Millennium Edition was huge, ugly, clunky, sluggish, and confusing; it mangled punctuation and capitalization; its accompanying word-processor, SpeakPad, couldn’t even select text reliably. The whole affair felt like a port by folks who had never seen a Mac and couldn’t write even a SimpleText clone. The auspices were not good. A few months later, though, things improved with ViaVoice Enhanced Edition; it still had plenty of rough edges, but with care and patience it was definitely usable for creating first drafts and for transcribing paper documents.



When Mac OS X shipped early in 2001, ViaVoice wouldn’t run as a Classic application, so users had to reboot into Mac OS 9, or hold their tongues, while hoping for a Mac OS X-native version. There was relief when IBM previewed such a version that summer, which turned to outrage when it transpired that a hefty percentage of ViaVoice for Mac OS X’s $170 price tag would be charged even to users upgrading from an earlier version.

There is good news on two fronts. First, IBM has modified its position on upgrade pricing: Enhanced Edition owners can download the Mac OS X version free, or purchase a CD-ROM version for $6 (a third version includes hard copy manuals for $20). Millennium Edition owners qualify only for a $40 rebate, though, and only until 04-May-02. Second, ViaVoice for Mac OS X, which shipped just after Christmas, turns out to be a major improvement: it looks and feels Mac OS X-native, its accuracy is astounding, and it can now type into and invoke Command-key shortcuts in any application.

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Better Overall — To be sure, some of my positive response could be merely a consequence of the aesthetic and systemic changes wrought by Mac OS X itself. Naturally my computer now sports oodles of cheap RAM and hard disk space, or I wouldn’t be using Mac OS X at all; and I’ve become accustomed to applications that are secretly folders, processes that run secretly in the background, and files secreted all over the computer. Much of what in ViaVoice seemed offensive under Mac OS 8.6 or 9.0.4 therefore seems normal in Mac OS X.

Still, there’s no doubt that ViaVoice’s command window is highly Aquatic, with its odd shape, its drop-down drawer, its brushed-metal 3D look, and its liquid round buttons. SpeakPad now seems almost indistinguishable from TextEdit. The various ancillary windows are generally well-behaved and consist mostly of standard widgets. In short, there’s scarcely anything not to like about the interface at all. And I don’t see how one can deny that ViaVoice’s recognition behavior is amazingly accurate and robust. It probably helps that dictation and commands can now be distinguished, either by enabling separate modes or by prefixing a vocative (such as "Computer") to commands; but the improvement seems to go well beyond that. I now routinely dictate paragraph after paragraph without an error. When I demonstrated ViaVoice at Macworld Expo, it performed flawlessly despite background noises that included an extensive round of laughter and applause from the audience.

ViaVoice’s new ability to dictate anywhere was previously the sole province of MacSpeech’s iListen, which hasn’t yet shipped a Mac OS X version. ViaVoice Enhanced allowed dictation into a select few programs, but there were painful difficulties coordinating typed material with subsequent voice commands for correction and editing. Now IBM has wisely abandoned this strategy – instead, correction and editing work only in SpeakPad, and all ViaVoice can do elsewhere is type. It’s true that this means if you work outside SpeakPad you can’t train ViaVoice through its correction feature. But its accuracy is so good that there won’t likely be many mistakes anyway. Plus, ViaVoice can now type Command-key shortcuts (global or unique to a particular application, like QuicKeys), as well as run AppleScript scripts. Taken together, those two capabilities mean you can drive most applications quite effectively. For example, in my Macworld Expo demonstration, I told ViaVoice to launch Eudora, create a new message, address it to my parents, put in a subject, tab to the body area, type the body of the letter, save the letter, and quit Eudora, all without using my hands.



Quirks Remain — ViaVoice still has some problems that need working out. Sometimes the correction window refuses to activate, or seems to leap away beneath my hand. The microphone comes on unexpectedly, such as after SpeakPad reads text aloud. ViaVoice still does odd things with spacing next to punctuation, especially when correcting. The manual is no longer "cheesy," but it still isn’t informative about technical matters such as what’s installed where, or how best to incorporate AppleScript. And informed vocabulary maintenance is still impossible; for example, specialized vocabularies for such topics as computers and cuisine are provided, but with no way to learn what words they include.

Nevertheless, with this revision IBM has taken ViaVoice another generation forward, from merely acceptable to downright enjoyable. Whether you intend to dictate your memoirs into SpeakPad or give your hands an occasional break from typing into Eudora, ViaVoice deserves consideration for a place in your stable of essential Mac OS X applications.

IBM ViaVoice requires a non-UFS Mac OS X 10.1 installation, with many hundreds of free megabytes on the boot partition and all the RAM you can afford. A 300 MHz G3 or higher processor is necessary; faster is better, PowerPC G4 chips are better than PowerPC G3s, and pre-August 1998 machines and upgrade cards are not supported.


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