Apple's Hot Streak - NY Times
- [Of particular interest: Microsoft has removed macros from
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The late beta version I tested has some bugs. The company
intends to get these fixed by the 1.0 version's
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.