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Summary:

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 […]

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.

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  1. Interesting and good post!
    I, for one, think this is a great thing.
    Windows pretty much saturates the personal computer market in Japan, but with the iPod and the ever-increasing trend of “cute, white and small” electronics, Apple really fits a niche market in Japan for portable computing. It also attracts the attention of female buyers who, in particular, seem to be the target audience for all these “cute but functional” electronics (you might notice how pink and white digital cameras are always an option in Japan, but not in Western countries). PCs in Japan have been selling in various colors and designs never to see the light of day in North America–especially Sony Vaio Japan PCs; some of their computers appear to be almost Apple-esque in Japan.

    “If only Apple can capitalize on their appearance and user experience with a Japanese audience…,” is what I used to think. But -especially- now since Boot Camp, many more Japanese might be willing to look towards Mac for computing. And the more applications that Apple can offer to compete with the WinXP experience, the better!

    This is one more thing that will benefit Apple’s appearance. In over six different television shows in 2006, Apple computers or iPods have appeared in Japanese prime time television shows (“dramas”). Most people who know nothing about computers are actually drawn to a Mac (brand-name appeal, good-looking, modern), but because many popular social networking websites limit their experience to Internet Explorer only, many people are steered into purchasing a PC. I can only assume the same would be for those who had special needs would occur.

    Yes, this is actually VERY good news. VoiceOver in Japanese “is cool” as you say :D.
    And I’ll be glad when I don’t know how to pronounce a kanji reading (without loading up, say, Microsoft Word) and hear it read to me instead. :) I hope they use a woman’s voice, though. A woman’s Japanese is clearer in narration to me.

  2. voice is nice, but I think Apple still lacks priority in a more important aspect for international users:ordinary text writing support.

    Thus there is no danish spelling option in the default spelling engine, no Summary for danish text, no Danish lookup in the Dictionary application, etc.. Same goes for many other european languages, no to speak of the languages of the rest of the world.

    So, even though text-to-voice and vice versa sounds really cool, I would think this affects many more users than those few reading-impaired mac users benefitting from the voice of Alex…

  3. Toke – yes, the core dictionary definitely needs to be addressed.

    I know there would be a cost in licensing a dictionary for each language, but I’m sure it would be worthwhile. If it is that bad, just make it so you can only install one ‘core’ dictionary English.

    I’m guessing if they are doing text-to-speech then they will need multi-lingual dictionaries too.

  4. Gareth Potter Friday, August 11, 2006

    A few responses:

    Tek,
    It’s worth pointing out that Japan is Apple’s biggest market outside of the USA. That’s why they got the first Apple Store outside the USA. There is a lot of Sony bullshit sold, but to those arty types (the artists, the progressive music types, the designers – I think you know the types I mean, and there are a fair few in Japan), the Mac remains king. Part of this is surely historical: international (and so Japanese) support has traditionally been much better on the Mac, facilitated by the GUI, etc.

    Toke,
    Agreed that it would be nice to have some other dictionaries, but as Jules suggests, there are licencing costs. It may not yet be justifiable. And if there’s no Danish spelling dictionary, it’ll be a long time before you see a Danish reference dictionary (i.e. like Dictionary.app) shipping with Mac OS X. User numbers are the key thing here.

    Jules,
    As I alluded to in my post, Apple may well not be providing multilingual TTS. Rather, they are providing a framework which third parties can use to develop TTS engines for other languages. Like, say, Japanese.

    And even if they were engaging in such development, spelling dictionaries, reference dictionaries (i.e. Dictionary.app) and TTS dictionaries are surely three completely different things.

  5. Gareth Potter Friday, August 11, 2006

    Tek,
    Incidentally, you might like to check out JEDict – it’s a more convenient lookup took for kanji readings. Or, alternatively, try the enormous Eijiro dictionary (there is a fee, but it’s not very much at all), then use it with EIJIRO Dash. That gives you Dictionary.app widget-style lookups in Japanese (though no readings).

  6. @Gareth:

    About international support being better on a Mac:
    From my own personal recollection and others’ personal experiences, the consensus has been that getting full Japanese language support on a Mac took longer than it did with Windows. Looking at anything for Japanese text support on Mac or Windows pre-1998 is scary for me anyway…Do you have any info on that? Maybe I can throw it into conversation one day with a Windows-fan friend of mine…ha.

    Artistic types are, I agree, drawn to Mac. It just makes sense. But of all the universities and schools I went to in Japan, I didn’t notice any with Macs (not to say they are not there, but universities have strict budgets and many were still running Win98 because of the need of its software).
    So that’s why I definitely think it’s a great idea to continue making better applications with other languages (Japanese in particular for this case), since as you say, Japan is the 2nd largest Apple market. :) Take a look at this, by the way: http://www.apple.com/jp/startmac/girlsilife/

    Oh, and the kanji readings. JEDict is a good place! I know it. But I wonder if there is a plug-in for Shiira, Camino, or Safari, etc. for select and control/right-clicking that will display the onyomi and kunyomi. I recall seeing something like that on Windows, but it was buggy. The widget is a good idea, in which case I know a good Japanese widget from the Apple Japan website–but that’d involve Dashboard…oh well, I guess nothing is instantaneous. :)

  7. Actually this has been more of a hiccup than a constant fault on Apple’s part. MacOS versions had more international options on language input and tts features than OSX later had (even if they weren’t as advertised as VoiceOver has been). Apple really dropped the ball making the big announcement on VoiceOver because a lot of users (like me) expected the services to be, at least, up to par to what OS9 was (Spanish voices were available freely).

    Cepstral has filled the niche and has kindly decided not to price their voices too high (which they probably could’ve done easily, as they were the only ones for a while). Now Apple still doesn’t really provide what it used to provide, but at least they make it easier for third parties to plug their products in (Cepstral still has lots of issues working correctly in some cases).

    As for the dictionary this is one of those cases where adding new functionality backfires. The dictionary included in OSX is licensed, including by default a recognised dictionary for every possible language is probably not cost-effective for Apple (as it’s unlikely a user would use more than one any given time;as it is a lot of users don’t even use the one included). An option would be to use open-source dictionaries, but there aren’t many of these and they’re not really reliable yet.

    As for spelling Apple includes, to my knowledge, dictionaries for all languages it covers and there are open source alternatives for these as well that function as well and pervasive (or better) than Apple’s.

  8. Tek,
    It would appear that Apple computers have been working with Japanese text for a very long time indeed – see this page for example, which suggests that there was a Japanese word processor on the Lisa in 1984. It notes that there was a Windows version too, but that the Mac version was more elegant, haha.

    According to this page, there has been Japanese support on the Mac since 1986 (through Kanji Talk). See also this page:

    Spindler’s biggest triumph while he headed Apple Europe was KanjiTalk and the explosive growth of the Macintosh in Japan. The Japanese had been slow to adopt the personal computer because of their inability to work with Japanese characters (called Kanji). Users had to type with a Latin alphabet, spelling words phonetically and losing meaning with confusing homonyms.

    Spindler recognized that the Macintosh would be more than capable enough to display and process Kanji characters. Spindler had Apple Japan buy rights to a Kanji font system and implement it on the Mac 512K. The fonts were supplemented with a sophisticated entry system that used word prediction to guess the meaning of words and change Latin spellings into true Kanji. The software was called KanjiTalk, and t made Apple one of only two computer companies selling Kanji-aware computers in Japan.

    This accords with everything else I have heard, and would explain the Mac’s popularity in Japan. It’s true that there aren’t huge numbers in universities (although when I was at Sophia in Tokyo, they had some), but I think if you look elsewhere…

    Gareth

  9. “As for spelling Apple includes, to my knowledge, dictionaries for all languages it covers and there are open source alternatives for these as well that function as well and pervasive (or better) than Apple’s.

    No. Apple doesn’t offer spelling dicts for all languages covered. There are alternative open source solutions (cocoaspell), but try explaining that to Mom when she is considering switching to the Mac.

  10. Toke: That may be true. I admit my experience is limited to english, french, spanish and portuguese. All these had spellcheckers in OSX (not dictionaries, not the same thing. I understand only dictionaries for english are included). It’s a shame if this isn’t the case then.

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