Mac Speech Recognition Gets a Boost

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Macintosh users who have lamented the lack of sophisticated voice-recognition technology got some good news this week at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif.: During his keynote address, interim CEO Steve Jobs revealed that Dragon Systems Inc. will deliver a Mac-based program derived from its NaturallySpeaking software for Windows.

The new software, scheduled to ship later this year, will close a huge gap between the Mac and PC in terms of voice-recognition capabilities. Although the Mac OS offers limited voice recognition via Apple's PlainTalk extension, there hasn't been a comprehensive Mac-based voice-recognition product since Articulate Systems Inc. -- engaged in a legal dispute with Apple -- pulled the plug on its PowerSecretary software in 1998.

Furthermore, there has never been a Mac program capable of the latest advance in voice recognition: continuous-speech dictation.

Before Dragon's 1997 introduction of NaturallySpeaking, voice-recognition software (including PowerSecretary) was limited to discrete dictation, meaning users had to pause between each spoken word. NaturallySpeaking's continuous-speech technology lets users talk without pauses, much as they would in normal conversation. The Windows software, available in several flavors at prices ranging from $200 to $700, is the best-selling voice-recognition product in the United States, according to market researcher PC Data Inc. of Reston, Va.

The technology is used in a variety of applications, including dictation, inventory management and customer support. For users with repetitive-stress injury, voice-recognition provides an alternative to keyboard or mouse input.

Dragon did not announce pricing or a product name for the Macintosh software. The Newton, Mass.-based company said it plans to begin with releases for American and British English, then follow them up with French, German and Japanese versions.

Dragon's WWDC announcement appears to represent a reconciliation with Apple after a run of patent disputes. In February 1996, Woburn, Mass.-based Articulate Systems -- then owned in part by Dragon -- filed a patent-infringement suit against Apple, which then countersued with a claim that PowerSecretary violated four Apple patents.

In October 1997 Apple filed a separate lawsuit against Dragon alleging that NaturallySpeaking violated three Apple patents. The companies have since settled the lawsuits but refused to reveal settlement terms.

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