The problem with choosing the size and shape of an electronic device – what’s commonly called ‘form factor’ – is that it’s inevitably an act of compromise. Make something big enough for a keyboard and sizeable screen, for example, and it’s too big to pocket. Make it little enough to cart around, and there’s simply not enough space to squeeze in a keyboard and resonably-sized display.
Some devices – iPhones or tablets – try and work their way around the problem by faking one element for another: the screen doubles as the keyboard and the mouse. Others – like the new Droid, with its slide-out keyboard – approach the problem like origami, looking to tuck elements behind each other when not in use.
And, invariably, those approaches suck. Another approach – voice recognition – sucks, too. But it sucks in different and complementary enough ways that, when paired with the indigenous suckiness of a device’s design, it often hugely improves the overall experience.
That’s certainly the case with Dragon Dictation, a new app for the iPhone. The idea is simple: you speak into the iPhone, and, within a second or two, the phone uploads the data, transcribes it to text, then displays it on your phone. You can use the iPhone’s software keyboard to tweak any mistakes, though, to my surprise, the accuracy of the translation, even in noisy settings, is surprisingly good. Then, with the touch of a button, you can transfer the transcribed text to an email, text message, or to the clipboard for pasting somewhere else.
For the first time, I can now enter an entire email’s worth of content in less than ten minutes of laborious thumbing.
Which isn’t to say that voice transcription will be replacing my laptop keyboard any time soon. While the human ear scrubs out the ‘ers’, ‘uhms’, and non-grammatical structures that populate at least my own speech, Dragon isn’t nearly so kind. And, similarly, while conversational speech tends to move only forward, typing is usually full of long pauses, and even regressions, moving backwards to edit prior fragments.
The writing I can do with text-to-speech, then, is well less than perfect. But, as compared to what I can accomplish with the iPhone’s keyboard, it’s an improvement nearly impossible to overstate. And, at the moment at least, the price is right: download it for the introductory $0 price, and give it a whirl yourself.
[Nota bene: You may see a lot of negative reviews on the iTunes site, mainly from people unhappy that the app uploads the names of your contacts to the Dragon servers. I suspect this is a tempest in a teapot, as Dragon uploads only the names, not any further info like emails or telephone numbers. If you have a Facebook account, you've already given up way more information to a company that's repeatedly proved itself to be way less competent in respecting privacy concerns. In the end, it turns out most people are willing to give up a little privacy for a lot of functionality - Dragon can spell the names of your friends and colleagues right if it has a list to help educate guesses - and for most people that's a reasonable trade.]