When Mac OS X Tiger was announced, it was on these pages that I lamented the ethnocentrism of the VoiceOver functionality in that OS. Whilst it was, I allowed, impressive, and presumably responded to the perception, whether real or otherwise, that Mac OS X was not exactly user-friendly for the visually impaired, it seemed something of an oversight that it was only able to read and speak English. Indeed, such was the absurdity that Apple Japan’s web team saw fit to translate the whole page describing the technology, leaving it unchanged save for the occasional insertion of a terse, bracketed “English only”. I couldn’t help but think that the market for blind Japanese users of Mac OS X who speak English is pretty small…
I am thus pleased to report that if the Leopard Sneak Peek is to be taken at face value, my concerns have, at least partially, been addressed. VoiceOver and, it would appear, the underlying text-to-speech engine have both received attention, to the benefit of not just the international community of which I speak, but also to the English-speaking amongst us as well.
The first and most obvious improvement for the readers of this blog will be Alex, the new English voice, which attempts to approximate correct intonation and even pauses for breath. Alex joins and, presumably, to some extent replaces the existing voices in Mac OS X, some of which, if memory serves, date back to the original Macintosh; the effect is to bring Mac OS X back up to par, as its once-advanced 1980s technology had come to lag somewhat behind Microsoft’s efforts in Windows XP. If the sample in the preview is indicative, Apple has a winner on its hands.
The other improvement – and it is this that is most relevant to my original lament – is the development of an architecture by which third party speech engines can be used with Mac OS X, and it is here that Japanese and Chinese get their mention. In Leopard, so the Sneak Peek declares, Apple will lay the groundwork for reading other languages on the Mac. This isn’t necessarily that impressive – the Japanese version of Office XP included two Japanese-speaking TTS voices licensed from Lernout & Hauspie, and that was quite a few years ago now, and indeed Apple too had evidently dabbled in TTS for languages other than English – I have a copy of Apple’s Chinese (Taiwan) TTS software for Mac OS 9 – but for reasons unclear, these never saw the light of day in OS X. And it’s because projects like this languished that these VoiceOver enhancements represent a good step in the right direction – a return to form, if you will – and they help to strengthen the Mac’s reputation, particularly in academia, for being good with languages.
To many, this many not seem particularly important. After all, the majority of Mac users are either anglophones or, demographically speaking, are probably more likely to have at least some command of English than, percentage-wise, PC users. But, particularly as Apple seems keen to make a real effort to enlarge its market share, little things like this help to sweeten the deal. Indeed, in some cases, such factors are crucial – particularly in government and education, where anti-discrimination legislation is perhaps most strongly-felt, such departments and institutions in non-anglophone countries might well have to think twice about purchasing Macs if they are unusable by the visually impaired. Through the enhancements to VoiceOver and TTS, Leopard offers an earnest attempt to rectify this situation.
Oh, and plus, a Mac speaking Japanese? That’s cool.