Will the iPad Follow the Failure of Voice Dictation Software?

By  |  Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 3:21 pm

[David Spark (@dspark) is a veteran tech journalist and the founder of Spark Media Solutions, a storytelling and social media production company that specializes in live event production. He blogs at Spark Minute and can be seen regularly on KQED and John C. Dvorak’s Cranky Geeks.]

Thirteen years ago, in 1997, I wrote an article for Family PC magazine (a now-defunct Ziff Davis publication) about dictation software. That was the year programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IBM ViaVoice had turned a critical corner in their respective capabilities. No longer did you have to dictate in an unnatural slow paused pattern (e.g. “Take…A…Letter”).¬† You could now speak naturally (e.g. “Take a letter”) and the program would seamlessly enter your words with 90-plus percent accuracy.

At that point, myself and many others in the industry thought that voice dictation would be a game changer. The technology and publicity was fantastic. Actor Richard Dreyfuss was a staunch supporter, mentioning Dragon’s software on The Tonight Show. Voice dictation seemed like a perfect technological interface solution for human-to-PC communications. When we’re born, speech is one of the first forms of communications we learn, so let’s train computers to adapt to a human’s way of communicating. It sounded like a slam dunk solution, but there was one problem…

We’ve become comfortable communicating with keyboards.
Outside of stories of people with carpal tunnel that can’t type for long hours (e.g. David Pogue of the NYTimes), I don’t know of one person that uses voice dictation software. I’m sure by making that statement I’ll see a flurry of people leave comments announcing, “I use voice dictation software and I love it!” But before any of you readers see those comments, do you know of anyone that uses voice dictation software?

This is not a slam against dictation software. Over the past 13 years, the technology has gotten better and better, and it truly is amazing. If it’s truly that fantastic, how come so few people use it? The reason is we’ve become comfortable thinking and working with a keyboard. As I’m writing this article I pause between each sentence. I think about it for a while and then write. I go up a couple of paragraphs and edit something I see that’s wrong. While voice dictation software affords all those pauses and editing capabilities, I just don’t feel comfortable writing by speaking out loud. I’m comfortable thinking and writing behind a keyboard.

Can we become comfortable with the iPad?

The success of dictation software’s technology yet failure of implementation got me to thinking about the future of the iPad. While there have been some quibbles about the iPad’s capabilities such as a lack of a video camera and the lack of Flash, the device requires a behavioral shift. While I like the idea personally, I don’t know if I can make the shift. And will others be willing and ready to change their behavior?

Watch Apple’s video of the device in action and you’ll be led to believe that they’ve thoroughly thought out the iPad experience. It’s a “go with you wherever” media and communications device. You can consume media naturally like you would a book or newspaper, and you can compose messages using the onscreen interface. But what the video doesn’t show you is all the decisions you’ll have to start making about your lifestyle if you choose to carry this device with you.

If you purchase an iPad, here are the decisions you’ll have to start making:

  • Do I pay for more carrier service? I’m paying for mobile carrier service and triple-play phone-Internet-Cable/IPTV service. Now I have to pay for iPad’s 3G service if I don’t want to be restricted to Wi-Fi?
  • Do I carry my notebook computer, mobile phone, and iPad with me everywhere? Each one has capabilities that the other device doesn’t have. If I can leave one device at home, which would it be? Probably the iPad.
  • This on screen keyboard is definitely not as fast as a traditional keyboard. I know I can purchase a keyboard attachment, but at that point, why do I need an iPad? I can just use my notebook computer.
  • The iPad is mostly a media consumption device. When computing I flow seamlessly between media consumption, media creation, work, and communications. With the iPad’s keyboard being that much slower, and the lack of multitasking, I won’t be able to move that quickly among all and it will probably become frustrating.

Could the iPad be another example of a technology like voice dictation that’s so impressive from a technological and human interface perspective, yet fails because other technology (most notably the keyboard) has trained us to communicate differently?


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21 Comments For This Post

  1. gianpo Says:

    There’s one fatal flaw in your argument people don’t use speach dictation software not because they are used to the keyboard but because speaking out loud to your computer doesn’t allow for privacy. Everyone around can hear what your doing on your computer and that makes people uncomfortable. Thats the real reason dictation software isn’t widely adopted. So with that your whole iPad bash falls apart.

  2. David Spark Says:

    This article lends itself to the argument. Being uncomfortable speaking in public is yet another reason voice dictation software doesn’t work. It’s far from the only reason. Myself and many other people work alone or in a closed office and we don’t use voice dictation software.

    Again, the issue has to do with what public norms we’re comfortable with. The iPad may not allow us to fit in with our accepted norms whether that has to do with what I’ve been trained to use (keyboard, mobile phone, notebook computer) or being comfortable in public. So I believe your comment actually supports my argument. But I heartily accept dissenting opinion.

  3. heulenwolf Says:

    I tried Dragon Naturally Speaking 6 in 2002. I gave myself a week to train the software to my voice and to train myself to dictate. By the end, I remained fairly unproductive mainly due to the slowness of editing both my own the and the software’s mistakes. Despite experiencing significant pain while typing, I returned to the keyboard to get my job done. Fortunately, I was able to find other ways of adjusting the ergonomics of my work area and changing my habits to make keyboard work bearable. For me, my “comfort” (aka relative efficiency) with the keyboard was so great that, at the time, I gave up on an alternative I’d paid $100 for. For various reasons, including the privacy issue gianpo mentions, it just wasn’t good enough as my primary input method.

    The situation would obviously have been different if I were unable to return to the keyboard. Users with that kind of motivation – its deal with this 90% solution or don’t user computers at all – are the primary group that can put up with its limitations. Who is the comparable group for the iPad? Unless they reduce its limitations with some additional announcements of iPhone OS features or on-line services in the coming 60 days, I don’t see anyone. The device may adapt to the user, as their marketing video claims, but the OS doesn’t.

  4. william Says:

    I would say that the main reason dictation software has not taken off is that it is less productive than writing. Writing is precise, whereas speaking is not. Even if the dictation software is perfect, the editing required after the fact is going to make it far less productive than typing. Just think about how painful it is to read exact transcriptions of conversations. When you type, you are far more precise, so there is far less editing later.

  5. David Spark Says:

    William, that’s because you’ve trained yourself to write through the keyboard. There are people like my father who for years before the computer would dictate all his letters and even a book. He would dictate into a dictaphone and then hand it off to a transcription service to write it out for him.

    If you had to switch from keyboard writing to dictating it would be incredibly difficult because you’ve trained yourself to think behind a keyboard, not a microphone.

    Transcriptions of interviews are different because it’s not the same kind of thinking of writing.

  6. Bill Baker Says:


    I was part of the PR team that launched IBM’s ViaVoice. (I am sure we spoke!)

    Two of the questions back in ’97 were exactly what you and some commentors mention: WOULD people talk to their computers and COULD people talk to their computers.

    “Would” meaning exactly what you said: would people be able to switch from “thinking” with their fingers to using their voice.

    “Could” meaning how would an office full of open cubicles be if everyone was jabbering away at their computer.

    I thought (and still think) the technology is amazing, but hard as I try, I can not get used to writing with my voice. It just does not work.

    A former colleague from IBM said to me a couple of years ago: “If speech recognition software was THAT necessary, IBM and Dragon would have sold a billion copies in about three days.”

    Sometimes good enough is good enough. Keyboards are good enough.

    With regard to the iPad: My iPod touch is my absolute favorite tech device of all time, bar none. I’m not sure, however, that I need a bigger version of it. If developers come up with killer apps that make the iPad a must-have device, then maybe. Otherwise, it will not be the game-changer that the iPod and iPhone are.

  7. Bob Kalsey Says:

    I get your analogy, David, but there’s a significant and meaningful difference between the two. Obviously, voice dictation is a single-purpose application, while iPad is a multi-use platform that provides a wide range of multimedia experiences. So I think that, even though it’s possible neither may have huge commercial impact, the reasons would be unrelated.

    For iPad, I think the question is whether it fills a gap — or is the “gap” just a figment of the imagination? iPad is going to be strong, I suspect, against Kindle, Plastic Logic, et al.

    The competition for voice dictation is typing–another input method, for iPad it’s iPod, tablets, e-readers, & netbooks — other platforms.

    The appeal of Dictation is labor saving in one activity, the appeals of iPad are coolness, connection, convenience.

    We will see if that’s enough.

  8. Rob Adler Says:

    I think there is a belief by Apple and other vendors that there is a place in market for a device that is smaller than a notebook but bigger than a phone. To date, this has been the domain of the netbook, which has a keyboard and is built on a computer OS. Not surprisingly, Apple with its dominant share of the mobile phone market believes that it will be based on the iPhone’s OS and applications.

    If you are looking for a device for media consumption, social networks and e-mail (think Kindle +), the iPad is a good device. For a business road warrior, then it will be a netbook or notebook.

    There is a room in the market for an iPhone and Blackberry. Why not iPad and laptop? More choices for the user is a good thing.

  9. Vipul Bhatt Says:


    Insightful article, but allow me to stretch it to situations where the basic premise — comfort with a keyboard — is not applicable.

    When you are mobile, and don’t wish to lug around a laptop, you don’t have a full-sized keyboard available. You do the best you can with a smartphone. While waiting at the airport or while getting out of a car in a parking lot, you are often not in the mood to compose long, precise letters. What you do need, however, is the ability to quickly hack out an email or make a calendar entry, there and then. In that scenario, a voice-driven smartphone app (that works) becomes very handy. Such scenarios are becoming increasingly common.

    Granted, automatic speech recognition in mobile environment is still a long ways away from being accurate enough. Voice-driven smartphone apps are challenging because they have to hold the line on accuracy, adding human-assist to machine recognition when necessary. But the fact that they are selling demonstrates the need and the willingness of early adopters to give it a chance.

  10. Becca Says:

    Very thoughtful analysis of where and how someone would use an iPad. I can’t help but compare the iPad to tablet PCs, with pen input and handwriting recognition. Like voice input, pen input really hasn’t caught on, despite some improvements to the recognition technology. I think it hasn’t for many of the same reasons that voice hasn’t.

    I have tried at various times to use a pen-input tablet to take notes in meetings, but I end up focusing on the interface rather than my thoughts. I think we have all mastered the keyboard to the degree that the input experience fades into the background, and we haven’t passed that hurdle with voice or pen input–because most of us don’t have to.

    When I finally adopted the Mac OS/iPhone OS touchpad gestures, they were easy to learn and remember, which was a pleasant surprise. This is one thing the iPad has going for it. I think it’s interesting that pen input and handwriting recognition weren’t part of the iPad introduction–and it’s probably because of the inherent frustration factor.

  11. Philippe DEWOST Says:

    David, I may not totally follow your comparison : voice dication failed as OCR still fails because it is not 100% reliable and therefore cannot fully hold the promise of automation (which implies trust).

    On the iPad, I’d appreciate your comments on the following article I wrote just for the sake of putting together a few thoughts : http://www.imphotonow.com/2010/01/delighting-views-on-the-ipad/

    Please let me know what you think

  12. David Spark Says:

    I would love it if a tablet computer would work because I would be thrilled to get rid of every book, CD, and DVD in my house and just carry around one device.

    The idea of an iPad or tablet computing is really attractive, but when you get into actual daily use, I don’t see how it can operate as a consistent presence like the phone and notebook computer.

  13. Catherine Fuller, MD Says:

    Dear David, I am desperate for voice recognition medical software for several reasons.
    The cost of paying a transcriptionist has sky rocketed and my hands are killing me. I trained in medicine when dinosaurs roamed the earth and am comfortable dictating great consultation letters. I can type incredibly quickly but the pain isn’t worth it. For my subspeciality, Dragon PC wants $1800 and MacSpeech Medical is running $600. I can dictate privately in my office so privacy is no issue here. Please compare these 2 programs and do you anticipate any true effort on Apple’s part to make the iPad a contender in voice recognition. I know there are many MDs who really would appreciate a break from this inertia. Thanks, CFuller, MD

  14. David Spark Says:


    My father is a doctor and he’s been transcribing his letters and articles for years. He always hired someone to do the transcribing. When I wrote this article 13 years ago I tried to get my father to jump and use it. Being that he’s not so technically adept, he never quite took to it.

    But, I do know you don’t need to get the most expensive transcription software to do the task. About ten years ago I know they had versions of the software that allowed you to import documents with industry lingo and they would learn those words. So for example you have a bunch of letters with many of the words you dictate over and over, you can import it into the program and it will learn those words. My guess is that’s your best solution.

    As for voice transcription and the iPad together? That wasn’t the point of my article and I don’t see that happening any time soon. In fact, Google’s new phone, the Nexus One touts voice commands. I’ve seen it demoed to me twice and in both cases it kind of worked. And we all know that “kind of worked” = “doesn’t work” in technology.

  15. Trevor M. Says:

    I disagree that the iPad is mainly a media consumption device due to its lack of an external keyboard. The iPod Touch and iPhone have shown tremendous capabilities without one. The iPad will built upon those successes to become a true media creation device as well. Read my blog post at http://www.edutechnophobia.com/2010/02/the-ipad-is-a-media-creation-device/ to learn more about how the iPad will be used to create media, not just consume it.

  16. David Spark Says:


    If you were given an iPhone, an iTouch, or a computer with a keyboard to write an article, produce a video, or radio program, which would you use?

    iPhone is a creation device solely because it’s a small device that can capture small bits of content that couldn’t be caught easily in transit with any other device. iPad doesn’t offer that convenience.

  17. Dave Says:

    I dictate and type for work. As someone who worked for a movie studio as an executive assistant while working through school, I can type upwards of 80wpm in English, Russian, and French. I now do ALL of my medical dictations over the phone or via a digital recorder. I tried Dragon and MacSpeech and it was a pain to get 100% reliability in a timely fashion. The timely fashion part is important. As much as TV would portray medicine as a lucrative profession, we operate on thin margins, not as thin as SD card manufacturers, but thin nonetheless. I tried typing all of my notes into an EMR and that cut too much into my time, but was 100% accurate. No errors whatsoever. It is cheaper, faster, and more reliable to send the dictations to India or Ireland. The extra stress and time spent dictating into my MBP is a waste. I can dictate a complete medical visit with physical, H&P, and pre-op orders in under two minutes and have it in my inbox in under a day. And when my dictations aren’t there, I type an email.

    It would be nice to have take the iPad into the room, dictate and order tests right from the iPad, snap a picture of a wound status, send the Rx to the pharmacy, and order an imaging study. It could be possible with a device this size and with this power, but it appears that no one is interested in the medical market.

  18. Bob Ivor Spokes Says:

    The iPad is a great working tool for me actually; apps are quicker to start up than those on a laptop, it is considerably lighter than most notebooks, and passing it around to a group of people is a lot easlier and less clunky. OK it doesn't have a keyboard, but if I am so inclined to do a lot of work processing I can always get a wireless one and get on it right away.

  19. Mike Says:

    The real reason why the majority of people aren't using voice recognition is because they do not know that there is another option than using the keyboard. Computers, tablets, phones are not set up to ask you a question whether you want to use either your keyboard or voice or combination of the two because it's not built into the operating system by default with the exception of new android phones. The problem is people don't know the option is available. If more devices started implementing in their operating system like android & it was commercialized people would know about it and use it.

  20. Chantal Terry Says:

    Voice dictation really created a storm then when it was first introduced. But apart from the hearing impaired, not many would consider using it when there’s a keyboard available.

  21. John Laser Says:

    Voice dictation could be fantastic the main problem is though especially in the UK is the variety of voices and accents and that's where these programs seem to screw up unfortunately. I hope they do solve these things soon however imagine how noisy the office would get if everyone used this.