The OS X speech-to-text myth

There is a widespread myth in the Mac community that Mac OS (yes, not just OS X) has included “speech recognition” for many years. I would argue that through well-publicised Jobs keynotes, in-store lecture theatres, many fansites with documentation, mostly in the form of two-paragraph “tips”, and, more recently, instructional videos on the Apple website, user knowledge of OS X is much better than user knowledge among Windows users. How is it, then, that very few Mac users actually use “speech recognition” (my claim)?

You will find that historically, speech recognition has been synonymous with “speech to text” (which the Wikipedia article still redirects from: speech to text). During the sometimes claimed twenty years that OS X has included “speech recognition”, third party applications such as iListen and ViaVoice for Mac have continued to sell. So is this an anomaly of history, where Mac customers have for years continued to buy third party software for functionality that was actually included in their OS out of the box? No, something perhaps more perfidious. There has been a semantic shift, where “speech recognition” for Mac users has become identical with “Speakable items“, a feature of Mac OS introduced as part of the OS in March 1994, although available from 1993 as a stand-alone program called PlainTalk. Speakable items includes phrases that allow you to navigate windows and certain programs; it also lets you define your own phrases which you can associate, for instance, with Automator scripts. I’ll reiterate again: PlainTalk and Speakable Items are not speech recognition! At best, it might be called phrase recognition, and its 1993 release date is very little to show for “20 years of history”.

Finally, as of this writing, speech to text in Tiger can neither be found in the System Settings, nor in the Services menu. Since it hasn’t been mentioned in any of the keynotes preceding Leopard, I doubt it will suddenly appear. (Remember the “top secret features”? Where are they?) If you wish to prove me wrong and demonstrate that scores of Mac users have been morons to buy third party software that did real speech recognition, and that purported experts have been ignorant, please post a reply!

That failing, I have to conclude that a certain gadget website (to be punished with a non-link) has been quite unfair in its recent comparison of Mac OS X 10.5 and Windows Vista, which ignores Vista’s true speech recognition.