Blog Post

Dragons and Dictation Software: How the Failure Continues

In late November, Gear Diary ran a short video sneak-peek of Dragon Dictation for the iPhone, an app that, like its big brother Mac and PC counterparts, converts spoken words into written text. The teaser video begins with the words “An app that will transform your iPhone usage.”

It’s now available in the iTunes Store, and for a limited time, it’s free. But don’t rush to download it just yet. While this is not a review of the Dragon Dictation app, it is a cautionary tale to be skeptical of the hype. Because, unless you already have a very specific need for speech-to-text technology (subscription required), this app fails where all dictation software has failed before.

A Quick Recap

In the early 90’s people started taking dictation software seriously, and developers dreamed of a not-too-distant Star Trek-inspired world in which our primary method of interaction with our computers would be via the spoken word. Not just stilted single-word utterances either, but fluid, organic sentences. Natural speech, they like to call it.

It all sounds fantastic. But the hardware was a long-time coming. Processors were underpowered. Microphones were too low-fidelity for dictation software to do its job reliably.

Image courtesy of SummerRain812 on Flickr

Sadly, higher quality microphones tend to be prohibitively expensive or must be strapped to the head during use. (Not exactly user-friendly.) In any case, even when speech recognition and dictation works well, it’s a control mechanism most of us find horribly uncomfortable.

What do I mean by that? If you’ve never tried dictating an email, letter, article or essay, go do it right now. I guarantee you’ll be returning to the keyboard in next to no time.

Dictation tools still require you to explicitly dictate punctuation (an awkward skill to master). The fact is, until computers really are as smart as those in Star Trek, the biggest problem with dictation software is not with the software at all, but with you, the user. You see, you need to be carefully re-trained not only in how you go about the task of ‘writing,’ but also in how you control your computer. It’s deliciously ironic that, after a while spent training yourself to speak the right words, the right way, at the right speed and with the right tone of voice, you sound more like a robot than your computer ever could.


No one writes an essay or lengthy document knowing in advance exactly the words they will use and in precisely what order. If you’re anything like me, you write a few lines here, an edit there, a quick jump back to the beginning to add something you forgot… Writing is a creative process that requires a lot of flexibility.

Just try moving your carat around a page using only your voice, and you soon realise that in the time it took to navigate successfully to that one particular spot on the page, you could have reached for the mouse, clicked, made your edit, completed your sentence and wandered off to watch last night’s episode of Stargate Universe.

Dragon Dictation is nothing special unless you already have a very specific need for such software, like I said at the start of this ranticle (a portmanteau of ‘rant’ and ‘article’ I suspect would take an eternity to type using dictation software).

The problems with dictation technologies can’t be blamed on Dragon Dictation; rather, they belong to those human interface challenges that are the product of our bias towards using our hands for most activities. If your hands and arms work sufficiently well, you’ll just prefer a mouse or keyboard.

For what it’s worth (even though I did promise this was not a review) Dragon Dictate has some noteworthy limitations; Dictation has to occur in short bursts of 20-30 seconds, which will swiftly become a nuisance if you happen to speak s-l-o-w-l-y. There’s no realtime visual feedback, so you can’t tell whether the speech-to-text conversion was successful until after you’ve finished dictating. Most importantly, the Dragon Dictate app doesn’t itself perform the speech-to-text conversion; those short 20-odd seconds of speech are recorded by the iPhone and transferred via the web to a server which does all the real work, sending the text results back to your iPhone. So not only is there an unavoidable processing delay, but you also have to be online to use it in the first place.

So, is this really the app that’s going to transform how you use your iPhone? If you constantly use Voice Control then perhaps you’ll love it. But for everyone else, this is likely one of those apps left to gather virtual dust, another victim of the harsh reality of current voice-interaction technologies.

I look forward to a Star Trek future in which we all talk to our computers and receive intelligent, useful responses. But don’t forget that the crew of the Starship Enterprise does the bulk of their computer work with their hands. (And it’s all dignified tapping and swiping, mind you, not comically-impractical Minority Report arm-waving!)

49 Responses to “Dragons and Dictation Software: How the Failure Continues”

  1. Those alarmed over the upload of contacts might also want to notice that your phone is not doing the speech to text translation. Apparently the sound is sent to Dragon where their computers translate and then it is sent back to you. This is a cloud app and I don’t think that fact is made clear.

  2. What this reminds me is not to bother reading the comments after the article.

    There was nothing misleading about the lede. And, while I find this app very useful for drafting quick emails and recipes, I was also a little annoyed about the short capture time.

    The author offered his opinion about speech recognition software at the same price as the developers gave us this app: $0.00. Can’t people just take it or leave it?

  3. OK… I understand what Josh Pigford was continuously trying to say about how the article was really just about dictation software in general (blah, blah, blah) –I get it. However, the staff really shouldn’t have opened it up with the new, relatively popular, Dragon Dictation app for the iPhone (not to mention the big Dragon Dictation logo at the beginning of the article). As semi-professional writers, you should know that an opening of an article –or for any piece of writing for that matter– is the most important segment. Therefore, the whole article was screwed up and you can’t blame the readers for ‘not picking up the real meaning’ (not verbatim). I personally think that Josh P. should have left 1 comment with an explanation and not get caught up in a comment battle with valued readers. All of those explanation/cover-up comments by Josh P. just really turned me off to the Apple Blog in general. What do you think the readers are stupid for not picking up on your true meaning of the article? The writer butchered the crux of the article, and the editors were negligent in not picking that up [period].

  4. Bill Garrett

    I was pleasantly surprised with the accuracy and ease of use of this app. I’ll certainly use it for replying to text messages while driving. If it can handle “yes,” “no,” and “stuck in traffic, please pick up the kids,” then it will cover 90 percent of my texting needs, and possibly save my life in the bargain.

  5. Scott3647

    I read the WHOLE article and here’s my take:

    I think the author of this article needs to find a new line of work (period) If it is too dificult to master a simple skill set of pronouncing punctuation marks (comma) he has no business either writing (comma) or reviewing technology (period) (new line)
    I have been using dictation software for a very long time (period) like David Pogue (comma) I have nearly perfect accuracy (period) using the correction features of (cap) naturally (cap) speaking and Mac (cap) speech goes a long way to improving accuracy (period) I speak in a natural tone (comma) without changing the speed or cadence in which I enunciate (period) (new line)
    As for editing (comma) the author is a moron (scratch that) the author is assuming that every one of his readers edits their writing in the same manner as he does (semi colon) and we all know what happens when one assumes (period) (new paragraph)

    as for the first mobile version of (cap) dragon (cap) dictation (comma) I have found it to be surprisingly accurate (hyphen) even without any type of training whatsoever (period) I have already used it many times to dictate text messages while in the car (period) though I agree that the time limit on initial dictation can be a pain (comma) all you need to do is press the record button again and continue dictating (period) (new paragraph)

    Now (comma) if you’ll just go back to the beginning of my comment and read it aloud (comma) you will have used all those terribly difficult skills needed for successful dictation (period) (new line)
    That really wasn’t that hard now (comma) was it (question mark)

    • Scott3647

      Two clarifications: FIrst, my obvious sarcasm was intended for the author of the article, and not for the other commenters, who mostly make very valid points about how off-base this piece was. Secondly, when I stated I spoke in a normal tone without changing speed or cadence, I meant without changing from my normal speech patterns, not that I had to speak in a robotic fashion as the author states needs to be done for successful dictation.

    • @scott3647 well done! Anyone who has used DNS is likely chuckling at your post. I have found that using DNS improves the articulation of speech in many people rather than making them speak robotic. In fact when I trained users in DNS I would go out of my way to make them dictate in streams of speech that the antithesis of robotic. The program likes that much better than choppy dictation.

  6. I really don’t get this article. The app is currently free! Why wouldn’t someone download this app. I’ve been using it for a few days now and I think it works great. It correctly dictates what I say about 95% of the time. Yeah, I get what you’re saying about how writing essays with the spoken word, but this is for the iPhone –short text messages, email, etc. I honestly can’t find one legitimate reason for someone not to download a free app like this.
    Moreover, I know they’re not advertising this –and probably for good reasons– but, for people who text and drive at the same time, this app is a godsend. Yeah, it’s still very dangerous, but it’s a lot less dangerous than typing. I think this app is great, and you’re looking way too deep into it. Remember, this is version 1.0 and is the (or one of the) first dictation app for the iPhone. Have some perspective!

  7. This application is super cool. I used it to leave this comment. I think all the positive feedback is right on target. It serves a purpose for leaving small messages while you’re driving or don’t feel like texting all the words. This is a top five app, hands down.

  8. This “non-review” is essentially useless for anyone interested in the Dragon dictation app for iPhone. The other reactions have it right: The writer is completely off-base about this app, and hasn’t apparently even tried using it. The Dragon app seems to fill a REAL need for dictating quick SMS messages, or other little notes or bits of text. My only concern is the privacy issue that has come up elsewhere, regarding the upload of full names of one’s entire contact list to Nuance. This writer doesn’t even mention it, which implies he hasn’t done even cursory research on the app itself.

    The writer has defended his post saying it’s not *really* a review of the app, and it’s really about speech dictation history, development, and current progress. I say BS. Own up to the fact that this is a post that *appears* specific to, and will generate hits specific to iPhone, Dragon Mobile App dictation. The first 3 sentences all specifically reference the fact that Nuance has a free iPhone app for speech dictation. In the 4th sentence, he cautions/advises people to NOT download it. After creating an expectation that he would be justifying his opinion with information that is appropriate to discussing THE DRAGON APP, he goes on to write about speech dictation in general, cerebral terms. The lack of follow-through, for an article so specific in nature, implies a lack of proper writing technique, sorry to say.

    The appropriately ANGRY feedback here reflects the fact the the writer has advised people to NOT use a new app, but does not justify this opinion with anything that actually relates to the app and its designed purpose.

    • Yep. We’re SEO blackhats who just write keyword-loaded content for search rankings. For dictation software. /sarcasm

      While I admit we intro-ed the article incorrectly (which setup the rest of the article in and odd light), you can’t possibly admit that you actually read the whole article. Because if you had, you’d have realized the LARGE majority of it was more about how dictation software in general is awkward as a workflow tool and was, as the author actually stated, NOT a review of Dragon Dictation. Seems the majority of commenters here keep implying the author was lying…which is absurd.

      We certainly appreciate feedback, but joining the mob and making baseless accusations isn’t the sort of commentary we’re interested in having here.

    • Howard – you said it ALL…

      I absolutely believe this post was padded to generate hits. Sorry Josh- time to come clean! “Intro-ed the article incorrectly”; seriously?

      Not calling anyone a liar. Just don’t speak out of your behind.

    • You’re spot on. We’ll actually start writing about blackhat SEO techniques soon and hopefully we’ll kill off our entire readership and get banned from everything on earth. Tomorrow’s feature article will be “Blackhat Apple: How to Game the Internets With Keyword Stuffing.”


    • I actually DID read the entire article, in hopes of finding the technical analysis and clearheaded justification for the writer advising people to NOT download the Dragon app at the very start of his article. He continues to miss the point, or is unwilling to admit it. Furthermore, accusing me of making “baseless accusations” and “joining the mob” sounds irrational at the least. And regardless of other readers’ feedback, or the perception of what they say, I certainly have not suggested the writer was “lying” about anything. I think he just has not done a good job of *writing* in this particular case. (And I’m left scratching my head interpreting the staff comment, “we intro-ed the article incorrectly (which setup the rest of the article in and [sic] odd light)” – I think it is plainly obvious what they did, hence my and other readers’ ongoing frustration. I wish the staff could set aside their egos long enough to consider this feedback objectively.)

      This blog appeals to a more technologically inclined community, and the audience expects sound, logical, technically accurate writing. If a writer starts an article by announcing a new product, in this case an iPhone app, but immediately advises his readers to not use it (or not purchase, or download it,) there is a very reasonable expectation that the admonition will be justified in his subsequent text. In this case, it was not. This was the equivalent of “bait and switch.” Given the first sentences of *this* article, the attempted disclaimer that it is not a review rings hollow. It clearly coincided with the official news on December 8, that the Dragon app was now available on iTunes. If the writer was not going to provide a review, then he shouldn’t have advised not using the app. He also should not have dedicated a paragraph on what the he perceives as shortcomings of some of the app’s features (in this case, specific ONLY to the app, not speech dictation software in general,) to further bolster his negative stance on speech dictation software.

      I arrived at this article while searching for “dragon iphone app privacy” using Google (restricted to recent News postings.) This post was one of the first hits located. I never claimed that the writer’s *intention* was generating hits, but the fact remains that it does generate hits for iphone apps, rather than a general history of speech dictation.

      If this article was meant to be a general commentary on how “dictation software in general is awkward as a workflow tool” then why bundle it with an ANNOUNCEMENT of an iPhone app and advise people to not use it? Oh, and since when is speech dictation a “workflow tool”? Is tapping on an iPhone virtual keyboard a more appropriate “workflow tool”?

      The bottom line seems this: The writer has a dim view of speech dictation, based on prior personal experience and personal writing preferences. Unfortunately, he used the news release of a new, potentially useful iPhone app to justify this article, which doesn’t address the actual benefits to iPhone users, but rather implies that because, in his opinion, ALL speech dictation software is flawed, readers should avoid the new Dragon app.

  9. sadicious

    Seriously? I actually thought that the design of this app is quite clever. I’m impressed with the accuracy as well. Sure, I can’t see it replacing the keyboard, but this thing is quite an achievement.

  10. Mattjumbo

    Wow. To each his own. I was blown away by the accuracy and utility of this app. I would have happily paid up to 20 bucks for it. With it being free it’s a no-brainer.

  11. The author of this article just doesn’t get it. This app is perfect for those of us that don’t like fumbling around trying to type a text message, but would still like to use texting. Maybe that’s a specific need, but every app on the iPhone tries to address a specific function. This guy isn’t very well informed.

  12. It does sound like you’re criticizing a stripped-down version of a larger system because the larger system isn’t want you’d like it to be.

    Your complaint is that unless you have a specific need for it, it won’t be useful to you? Monkeyballs, you could say that about every piece of software ever written!

  13. I think that the reviewer should differentiate between the iPhone app and personal computer voice recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking and MacSpeech Dictate, both of which utilize the Dragon voice recognition engine.

    PC voice recognition software has come a very long way in recent years. Some people may be surprised to learn that the New York Times technology columnist David Pogue has had serious carpal tunnel syndrome for years; the symptoms were so bad that his doctor advised him to give up typing and piano playing, the primary activities that feed his family and his soul.

    So for around ten years David has used Dragon Natural Speaking for all his writing, which includes articles, blogging, e-mail and books. He claims a 99% accuracy rate, which is pretty darn good in my book…

    I don’t expect a 1.0 release of an iPhone voice recognition app to achieve that kind of accuracy because of limitations due to the iPhones processor, microphone and the likelihood that the software will be used in environments where ambient noise can affect the quality of the dictation.

    And it is just a fact of life (for now anyway…) that some people cannot successfully use voice recogntion software because they have a heavy accent, speech impediment or they simply cannot master the art of dictation. I expect that those limitations will be mitigated in the future by improvements in the software, microphones and processing power of personal computers.

    It’s true that dictation requires developing a new skill set, but most people can do it if they will only spend a little time at it. I learned how to dictate when I was a paralegal and it isn’t difficult to do. And while I learned how to touch-type in the 8th grade I have become a rather sloppy typist over the years and computer-powered dictation is a Gawd send for me.

    It may work for me because I do most of my writing in my head before I sit down at the computer and I don’t need or expect a polished piece of work in the first draft. Dictation software allows me to get the “first thought, best thought” words recorded; I can then further massage the words and grammar in subsequent drafts, using a keyboard if necessary. Not having to use a keyboard much of the time frees up my hands for dealing with notes, etc. while I compose a draft. An added bonus is the computer voice control functions that are part of the Dragon software feature set.

    So have a little patience. If voice recognition software doesn’t appeal to you for some reason there is always the Voice Memos app or digital recorder options from which transcriptions can be made.

  14. I have the app and it seems to work quite well. Especially for simple but long texts it works exceptionally well

    Also I would like to point out, this blog has become less and less professional. The twitter posts asking for computer help have become quite annoying and unnecessary.

  15. As a translator I have been using Dragon software extensively, and I can guarantee it does work, and well. I have also friends who use dictation software everyday for compiling their radiology reports. This review is completely biased and unsubstantiated. Dictation software might not work for the reviewer, but it’s a marvelous tool that’s entered the life of many professionals.

    • “While this is not a review of the Dragon Dictation app” – WTF?

      Perhaps you felt the need to feed the blog. Don’t you have something to write that would be useful to Apple/app users?

      I have no problem disliking free apps, but needless ranting about apps you have not tested… Seriously!

      The only ‘practical’ dictation application would be a secretary and a steno pad. Then again- they occasionally make mistakes also. Do we fire all the secretaries?

      Again – the app Dragon app works well; would I compose a novel on it – No; who would?

    • I couldn’t agree more with Sully’s comment.

      @josh, I don’t think anybody missed the point of this article as you can tell by all the comments about how good the app is and how pointless this articles is. You obviously miss the point of writing about something your readers actually care.

    • HD: It seems we didn’t do a good job on this article conveying our point of view. Our bad.

      But saying we’re missing the point about writing about what our readers actually care about is sensationalist on your part, at best. Cheer up buddy.

  16. blahblahblah

    I also thought there might be some reporting or analysis in this piece but it is totally content free. You are really going to diss it without trying it…”even though this isn’t a review”. Pathetic.

  17. I downloaded it and have loved it. For the casual user it’s very accurate and fast. Also for FREE what else do you want? I thought this article would have some really valid reasons or issues with this software. It doesn’t.

  18. blondepianist

    “Transform” is an overstatement. But I downloaded it and can see using it to dictate quick notes while I’m in the car, as a keyboard isn’t safe to use while driving. If you’re waiting for more features, there’s no reason to hold off downloading it, as it will cost more money later.