What is wrong with MacSpeech?

The tale of a software with potential, near-monopoly status and a lot of upset users.

MacSpeech Dictate is the only usable dictation software for the Mac. I’ve been using it since the beginning of January, and the speech recognition is pretty good most of the time. Especially considering I’m not a native speaker and have a tendency to slur. But the software has its problems. There’s a very limited set of text editing commands, and the only ones I can get to work on a regular basis are the ones for selecting words and replacing/deleting them, and moving the insertion point (but only between words). The built-in notepad is the fastest place to dictate into, but sometimes it types the words backwards, or inserts the same text repeatedly in the wrong place. And if you use it long enough it will eventually crash, leaving your carefully dictated text in binary afterlife. Dictating into Firefox leads to sudden and unexpected line breaks and spaces, same thing with Xcode, Pages from iWork is better but the only applications completely free of such frustrating appearance of unwanted whitespace are Mail and TextEdit. In TextEdit, however, moving around and selecting text is excruciatingly slow. You end up spending almost as much time waiting as dictating. Occasionally, Dictate will select all or parts of the text and remove it. The only way to teach the software new words is to write them into a text file, save it, and then open it with the Vocabulary Training command. And then hope that this time, it will work. My first user profile stopped working after two months so I had to create a new one and start from scratch. Sometimes Dictate just stops responding or starts misinterpreting everything I say, which a restart may or may not fix. It will only on rare occasions recognize the word “cell”, and never recognizes “app”. Which is inconvenient for someone who only writes about iPhone programming. And it never learns from its mistakes. There’s more, but I think I’ve made my point.

So with me and many other users experiencing serious problems with version 1.3 of a software we had paid $200 for, what do you think MacSpeech did? I will get to that, but first let me speculate about why they did it.

I imagine it went something like this: The people at MacSpeech were hard at work on the 1.5 update, fixing the bugs and implementing a much requested feature; the Vocabulary Editor. Then someone suggested they should also update the underlying speech recognition engine (Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking). Which is a good idea, it will improve both speed and recognition. Since they are no doubt paying through the nose for the right to use the latest version of the NaturallySpeaking engine, they decide they will have to charge the users for this upgrade. And since the upgrade is measured in gigabytes, their servers don’t have the capacity to host it and they’ve never heard about torrents, they decide to only make the upgrade available in physical form.

All of this is of course speculation. I don’t know why they did what they did, but I always like to see things from both sides and I think I have come up with a fairly good explanation for their side. But there are two things I can’t explain:

  1. MacSpeech UK can only ship within the UK.
  2. The shipping costs to mainland Europe for one CD and one DVD is $80. No kidding. Which begs the question “Are you kidding? You must be kidding! Tell me you’re kidding!”. But I’m not, honestly. That’s what they said. And wrote.

But enough about their side. Back to mine. This is what it means for me and many other users, some of whom are disabled in some way and more or less dependent on dictation for writing:

  1. We bought this software for $200.
  2. It barely works, and then mostly in mysterious ways.
  3. MacSpeech not only charges $55 for the 1.5 upgrade, they tell us “it’s an incredible bargain”!
  4. For those of us unfortunate enough to not live in the US or UK, they charge an additional $80 for shipping.
  5. I would like to repeat that. In the year 2009, they charge $80 for the shipping of software. For that price, the CEO should be flying around handing out each copy personally. I wish he was actually, I have a couple of things to tell him.
  6. And to top it all off, many who have upgraded have had to switch to US English to get the software to launch, the vocabulary editor only works with new words and there still seems to be a lot of problems.

In a market economy the only way a company can do things like this and get away with it is if they have a monopoly. And MacSpeech does, almost. They have the only usable dictation software for the Mac. But I have Parallels and Windows XP installed, and have ordered Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred 10 for $144. That’s only $9 more than the upgrade from MacSpeech, and with it I get better recognition and speed (according to, well, the Internet), much better editing capabilities, the ability to browse the net via voice control (should come in handy when my arms start acting up) and the ability to record dictation on my iPhone and transform it to text when I get back to the computer (I’ll have to see that first to believe it though It works surprisingly well. Not as well as dictating directly to the computer obviously but still very useful).

Dictating into a Windows application running under Parallels virtualisation of course means I will have to use copy and paste to get the text to where I need it, but with the exception of Mail I’m already doing that.

At least i won’t have to do any more business with a company like MacSpeech.