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Apple's Hot Streak - NY Times

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  • John Rethorst
    [Of particular interest: Microsoft has removed macros from Office 2008] New York Times, January 24, 2008 STATE OF THE ART New Tools to Bolster Mac s World By
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 29 9:44 PM
      [Of particular interest: Microsoft has removed macros from
      Office 2008]


      New York Times, January 24, 2008

      STATE OF THE ART

      New Tools to Bolster Mac's World

      By David Pogue

      Apple has been on a hot streak.

      After years of muddling along with a 2 percent share of the
      personal computer market and a small cult of rabid fans,
      the company is moving the hardware. Fourth-quarter sales
      and profit hit a company record as 2.3 million Macs were
      sold. The company's market share was 6.1 percent as the
      year ended.

      The fickle folks on Wall Street have been dumping the stock
      this week, but almost everybody knows somebody who recently
      switched to a Mac.

      There are all kinds of theories to explain the sudden
      resurgence: the lack of viruses, the iPod halo effect, the
      critical mass of Apple stores, the disappointing debut of
      Windows Vista, all those Apple TV ads, the switch to Intel
      chips (meaning that Windows programs run on a Mac) — or
      maybe all of it together.

      Whatever the reason, a virtuous cycle may soon kick in:
      More Mac sales lead to more software titles, which lead to
      more Mac sales, which lead to — well, you get it.
      Indeed, this month two important software programs make
      their debut. One is a minor upgrade from a big company:
      Microsoft Office 2008 for Macintosh. The other is a big
      deal from a tiny company: MacSpeech Dictate, a new
      speech-recognition program.

      Office first. The basic version of this software package
      ($150) comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage, an
      e-mail/calendar/address book program.

      Office for the Mac still isn't as powerful (or as
      confusing) as the Windows version, but it has its charms.
      For example, the Mac programs have been rewritten to
      exploit the modern Mac's Intel processor (instead of
      running in a slower simulation mode, as Office 2004 did).

      This, frankly, is the best part. When you type in Word or
      delete a message from Entourage, the response is smart and
      snappy. There's no more fraction-of-a-second delay when you
      type in Word, and no more mysterious 90-second lockups in
      Entourage.

      Furthermore, the whole thing has been successfully
      redesigned to match the look of Mac OS X. The fonts, color
      schemes and tool panels look like they've come straight
      from the designers at Apple — especially the palette that
      lets you drop your iPhoto pictures into Word or the other
      programs.

      Considering the four-year gap since the last version came
      along, Microsoft hasn't added much. For example, you get a
      global search in Entourage, formula auto-complete in Excel,
      control over PowerPoint slide shows with the Apple remote,
      and a terrific page-layout view in Word, complete with
      linked boxes with auto-flowing text. Office 2008 also lets
      you save your documents, if you like, in the new, more
      compact file formats of Office 2007 for Windows (ending in
      .docx, .xlsx and so on).

      Blockbuster new features, however, are nonexistent. Worse,
      one old blockbuster feature is now nonexistent: macros, the
      recording and playback of routine steps.

      This is a devastating loss to power users. In Office 2004,
      you could create a button that, for example, triggered
      several search-and-replace steps in a row, shuffled things
      around on a spreadsheet, or magnified what's on your screen
      to 150 percent. In 2008, it's all gone.

      If you're geekily inclined, you can recreate some of these
      software robots using the Mac's own AppleScript language;
      Microsoft is readying a guide for doing just that.

      Otherwise, for Microsoft to remove any power-user features
      at this stage seems like a risky move; there are plenty of
      simpler, less expensive Office-compatible programs,
      including Apple's own $80 iWork suite and the free Google
      Apps.

      The other Mac software news this month is more exciting.
      For years, the industry's most amazing speech-recognition
      program has been Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows. In
      its latest version, I got 98.9 percent accuracy right out
      of the box, without even reading the training scripts.

      On the Mac, though, the only speech-recognition option was
      a program called iListen, which was built on far less
      sophisticated speech technology from Philips. Seven years
      ago, I asked iListen's creator, a former Dragon engineer
      named Andrew Taylor, why on earth he'd based his Mac
      program on the Philips software instead of Dragon's.

      The answer, it turns out, was that the Dragon technology
      would cost too much, and the conditions for using it were
      too onerous, in Mr. Taylor's view. He went with the Philips
      software, but never gave up his dream of bringing Dragon
      technology to the Mac.

      Eventually, the Mac's popularity rose, new bosses took over
      at Nuance (the current owner of the Dragon technology) and
      Mr. Taylor finally landed a deal.

      The new program, MacSpeech Dictate ($200 with headset), is
      a big deal, especially for the thousands of Mac lovers who
      have been running Windows all these years just so they
      could use Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

      MacSpeech Dictate is fast and accurate, pouring correctly
      transcribed text into any program where you ordinarily
      type, as fast as you can speak. When I read a 1,000-word
      book excerpt, the program transcribed only nine words
      incorrectly — 99.1 percent accuracy. (I had read the
      four-minute training script and fed the program a folder
      full of documents I'd written, which is how you introduce
      special terminology and names to the program's dictionary.)

      You get a giddy feeling the first time you see Dictate in
      action; you can't help contemplating how much more e-mail
      you'll be able to plow through in a day, or how your aching
      hands will no longer have to keep up with your brain when
      you're writing.

      Dictate can also operate your computer. You can say "Open
      iMovie" or "Open Calculator," for example. You can also
      speak menu commands and button names, and you can select
      text that you've already dictated earlier ("Select `five
      score and six years ago' "). At that point, you can delete
      it, format it or replace the highlighted phrase. You can
      also run AppleScript programs or open Web sites by voice.

      All you see of the program when you're using it are two
      small translucent floating windows (both of which you can
      hide, if you like). One contains the microphone on/off
      button. The other, called Available Commands, shows you
      what commands are available at the moment. Here's where you
      discover, for example, the delightful "scratch that"
      command that deletes your last utterance and the "cap"
      command that capitalizes the next word you speak.

      The program also lets you create voice macros, where you
      say one thing ("buzz off") and it types out something
      different ("I respect your opinion, but I'm afraid we'll
      have to agree to disagree on this one"). That's a huge
      time-saver for anyone whose work entails repetitive answers
      or clauses.

      So Dictate 1.0 is attractive, simple and Mac-like. It is
      not, however, as good as NaturallySpeaking 9.0 for Windows
      ($200). It lacks features like audio playback of what you
      said, a simple "add word" command, legal and medical
      versions, and non-English language kits.

      It also lacks voice correction.

      When NatSpeak makes an error, you just say "Correct `ax a
      moron' " (or whatever it typed); and choose from a list of
      alternate transcriptions. The program not only corrects the
      error in your document, but also learns from its mistake.
      Over time, the accuracy edges ever closer to 100 percent.
      In Dictate 1.0, however, you have to fix transcription
      errors by hand. The company intends to add voice correction
      in a 1.1 update; in the meantime, though, your accuracy
      won't improve.

      The late beta version I tested has some bugs. The company
      intends to get these fixed by the 1.0 version's
      mid-February release.

      Even so, Dictate gets the big things — speed and accuracy —
      right, which may be enough for a lot of people. This
      program and the new Mac Office fill big holes in the
      Macintosh landscape — a landscape that's looking brighter
      all the time.
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