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Dictation for the Rest of Us — Built by Apple, Not the Government

I composed this column using what might as well be a new computer.

It really isn't new at all. In fact, it's only a few months away from the expiration of its extended warranty. Incredibly, a $20 system upgrade has transformed it into a heretofore unimaginable powerhouse.

It's likely that most readers here don't know that I have been a big fan of Apple's Macintosh for 27 years, going back to before the things even had hard drives. Back then, Arthur Young, where I worked, was the only one of the then-Big Eight CPA firms using Macs for anything meaningful (it might have had -- cough-cough -- something to do with the fact that Apple was a client). Those who have known me for a long time certainly remember that many years ago I was often a pain in the rear end about how technologically superior Macs were at the time (because they were).

My preference for Macs is by no means the same thing as saying that I'm a big fan of Apple itself, or even a blinders-on acolyte of its late founder Steve Jobs. As a company, it seems that Apple has been too quick to claim full credit for things others largely developed, and far too eager to legally harass and intimidate critics and "leakers." Al Gore's continued presence on the company's Board of Directors is more than a little disturbing. As much as one can't help but be impressed to the point of awe with the development, marketing, and commercial success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, I've never been crazy about and don't own any of them, and am among the few holdouts who believe that phones should primarily be for conversation.

Until Saturday, I had begun to think of my current Mac as a nice machine that does a serviceable but insufficiently swift job of helping me get things done -- quite a bit better than most Windows-based machines ever could, but not really cutting edge. Then I installed Mountain Lion.

Somehow, even on a clunky old MacBook like mine, virtually every task moves far more quickly than on any Mac I've ever owned, even brand new ones straight out of the box. That alone was easily worth twenty bucks and an hours-long download on a pretty fast Internet connection. (Confession: Part of my reaction to the speed improvement was the spoiled user's lament: "Where the heck have you guys been the past two years?" Users -- can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.)

The speed improvement is really nice. But, at the risk of being seen as applying for readmission to the cult, Mountain Lion's dictation program is truly transcendent and insanely great (there I go).

Using it is ridiculously simple. First, make a one-time selection to enable dictation in System Preferences. Then, with your cursor appropriately placed in a program or form's entry area, press the Function (fn) key twice. A small dictation icon pointing to where your text will begin when you start speaking appears. To interrupt dictation after speaking for a while to collect your thoughts, press the Function key once; what you've said thus far will appear. Press the Function key again when you're ready to resume. To end dictation, press the Function key twice or click "Done" in the dictation icon. That's all there is to it.

Compare that to what one must do to get dictation working (sort of) in Windows 7: Select speech recognition; set up microphone; take speech tutorial; and train your computer to better understand you.

For those unfamiliar with speech recognition technology, the last step just noted isn't a joke. Before achieving acceptable accuracy, at least until recently all but the highest-end programs have had to get acclimated to your voice, requiring users to spend time reading "See Spot run" exercises before beginning live use. Although an Apple tech support representative told me that the company has not released any estimates about the accuracy of Mountain Lion's dictation, what I have experienced thus far with absolutely no set-up is at least 95% -- and Apple says "The more you use it, the better it understands you."

To the extent I could verify them (in English only), the claims Apple makes on its information page about dictation appear to be accurate. One reviewer has panned its roughly 30-second limitation on a single dictation stream. Given the ability to almost instantly pause and resume with the Function key, I don't see how that's really a valid complaint.

So how did Apple do this? The "secret" is that the computer which is interpreting and then rendering your speech isn't yours. It's Apple's, reached through Director Al Gore's "invention" (i.e., the Internet, for those who don't remember the 2000 presidential campaign). This means that the company can throw all the processing power required to make its recognition capabilities robust, while still giving users with Macs that are even four or five years old the ability to join in the fun.

As I see it, if you don't have a Mac running Mountain Lion, your computer is seriously out of date.

The company which Steve Jobs built, left involuntarily, returned to save and then transformed has just opened the door to productivity-increasing, life-enhancing, and economy-improving possibilities one can only begin to imagine -- and yes, Apple, while improving on the accumulated technology of predecessor efforts which were never able to make what they had into something the average person can and will use, including on their iPads and soon their iPhones, is the company which built it. Too many big-government advocates who should be thanking God every day for private-industry breakthroughs such as these, including our incumbent President, instead act as if they deserve the credit because many of Apple's employees commute to and from work every day on government roads and transit systems. Give me a break.