Voice recognition has long failed to gain much traction in mobile thanks to technology that was overhyped and underwhelming. But Apple could once again change the way we interact with our phones by integrating the technology with its upcoming iOS 5.

voice recognition

Voice recognition has long been billed as a kind of holy grail of mobile computing, but the reality is that the technology has been awkward, inaccurate and often unusable, resulting in misdialed phone calls and incomprehensible messages. So it’s no surprise it’s failed to garner much usage in mobile.

Apple may be positioned to change all that, though, with the iOS 5 platform it will outline at next week’s WWDC in San Francisco. The company has reportedly been in discussions to license Nuance’s effective voice technology – dubbed Dragon – and may integrate it with the new version of iOS 5. Apple could make the technology available to developers as a built-in API in iOS 5, handing app creators a valuable new tool. Such a move would not only give voice recognition a much-needed push into the mobile mainstream, it would give Apple the chance to once again transform the way we interact with our phones. Here’s why:

1) Voice recognition technology is finally ready for prime time. Dragon powers Nuance’s FlexT9  for Android, a dictation app that sells for a mere $5 and enjoys a four-star user rating after more than 1,100 reviews. And there is no shortage of compelling use cases, from accessing a navigation app while driving (when your hands should be on the wheel) to dictating lengthy messages rather than typing on a miniature keyboard.

2) Apple knows how to educate the consumer. Voice recognition has come a long way, but using it still isn’t always intuitive. Google’s technology, for example, requires users to say the words “period” or “comma” if they want to add punctuation to their messages. But Apple’s marketing genius lies in showing consumers how to use technology: The first iPhone commercials were essentially tutorials in how to surf the Web, access email and find nearby businesses on the handset. A similar campaign could illustrate how to do all those things and more by talking, not typing.

3) Apple is a master of the user interface. The touchscreen was nothing new when the iPhone came to market; Apple’s true innovation was in simplifying the technology with an interface that made it easy for users to navigate their phones. The company could do the same with voice by integrating Dragon closely with iOS, making it easy to send messages or navigate the Safari browser by speaking. And the legions of iOS developers will surely find innovative new ways to leverage voice in everything from messaging to gaming to social networking.

For more thoughts on how Apple could leverage voice recognition technology to change the way we use our phones, see my latest Weekly Update at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image courtesy Flickr user Lazurite.

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  1. Patrick Rafter Wednesday, June 1, 2011

    Apple’s used voice recognition technology for a long time. Beyond what they’re doing with Dragon, Apple has used Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology to provide automated voice response for customer service. To their credit, Apple was one of the first companies to deploy IVR platform from Interactions, Inc. (www.interactions.net) whose “HumanTouch” technology combines the best of IVR automation (cost savings) with simultaneous connections with live human agents (when necessary). Having endured countless IVR nightmares, I found the Interactions/Apple “interactions” much more like a conversation with a human being.

  2. Ralph Haygood Wednesday, June 1, 2011

    I find this post curious. For over a year, I’ve been using a Nexus One, on which any text field can be filled in by voice (if there’s a network connection, which presumably Apple too will require). I find it works quite well. And no, I don’t mind saying “comma” or “period” on the rare occasions I need to.

    It’s amusing that this page is currently showing me four ads for the “PayPal Developer Challenge for Android.”

    1. So this article is saying that Apple will find a way to eliminate the need to say punctuation marks and that will make voice control magical now? I have been using the original Droid and the voice control for a long time. I can tell you voice recognition is already ready for prime time. Apple will merely be catching up and not evolving anything.

  3. I agree with Ralph on this one. I use Google Voice Actions on my Android device about 50 times a day, for everything from writing email and text messages to searching driving routes, making calls and starting music, and it rarely fails me.

    That being said, I think it is partly due to the great voice technology Google has and partly due to me learning how to speak clearly when using the service. And when I say “speak clearly” I do not mean sound robotic. I speak normally, with one difference, I speak to it as though it is one of my sons (ages 1 and 4). That is to say I pronunciate.

    On that note, and slightly unrelated, as a parent you know you have done a great job when your children can speak clearly enough to use Voice Action on your Android device.

    – Proud Father

  4. Here’s a hint though.. Voice recognition is already mainstream thanks to Google and Android.

  5. Here’s a hint though.. Voice recognition is already mainstream thanks to Google and Android.

  6. Here’s a hint though.. Voice recognition is already mainstream thanks to Google and Android.

  7. iPhone voice recognition is pretty pathetic compared to Android’s. Another reason why iPhone is eating Android’s dust.

  8. If this is going to be true then i would prepare my self for

    “The Magical,Revolutionary Voice recognition is here on iOS.Ur Voice Would be never like before??!!!!!
    and @android(Pokes Fun @)

    Their Voice recognition is like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell!

  9. Do any of these mobile voice recognition solutions work offline? Aren’t they all front ends to cloud cpu?

  10. I agree with what everyone is saying. I’ve been a Droid (original, still the best!) owner since November 2009 and have used Android’s built-in Voice Search functionality since it was added (built-in) to Froyo 2.1. It’s nothing short of fantastic. what makes the service even better is that it’s constantly improving “in the cloud” because Google takes the voice input string and translates it OTA.

    I agree with Roger, Apple’s simply playing catch-up. Seriously, this site needs to get off of Steve Job’s crotch.

    1. Thanks to all for the comments; y’all are right to note that Android’s voice recognition is solid. (I discuss that in the more expansive piece at GigaOM Pro.) But very few people know about it and use it because it isn’t marketed. EntrepreNerd is right to point out that even Android’s voice recognition technology has a learning curve. Apple (and a lot of iOS developers) could give the entire voice recognition market a big boost by educating consumers what it is and how to use it.

      1. My gf bought an android phone bc of the marketing she saw. Specifically, I think it was Tmobile. Perhaps you mean wasnt marketed in that the huge arm of verizon or apple or the ilk didnt market it. In that regard, you’re right. As soon as apple even announces voice, there will be some sort of ‘droid does’ commercial that will help the overall public awareness of voice recg.

      2. Do you have any stats that back up your assertion that very few people know about and use Android’s voice recognition features?

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