Text-to-speech could be Apple’s next mobile trump card

voice control feature

Over the weekend, Apple released iOS 5 Beta 5 to developers, and some intrepid digging by 9to5Mac revealed that it contains a text-to-speech system powered by Nuance, the makers of Dragonsoft Naturally Speaking. The system apparently works by allowing users to switch from keyboard to speech input at any text field, and it looks likely to be a system-wide feature, if it makes it to public release. This is just the latest example of Apple raising the stakes in the feature race with Android.

With iOS 5, Apple is introducing a feature that many Android users have cited as an advantage of Google’s mobile OS: improved notifications. But as our own resident Android expert Kevin Tofel has admitted, the iOS implementation of notifications actually improves upon the Google original, as well as borrowing some of its core strengths. Apple’s text-to-speech implementation could leapfrog Google’s in a similar fashion.

Nuance, the company reportedly powering the iOS speech-recognition software, is an industry leader in the tech, approached only by Google, in fact. Microsoft’s TellMe feature in its upcoming Windows Phone 7 Mango update also looks promising, indicating that this could be a key area of contention among mobile platforms. If Apple makes system-wide text-to-speech a feature accessible not only to its own iOS software but also to third-party developers via a public API, it could make Android’s voice-powered features look like an early beta by comparison. This is not only because of Nuance’s industry-leading speech-recognition software but also because in theory, any app in the App Store that wants to implement voice support might be able to include it with just a few simple lines of code.

Apple has been reported to be in talks with Nuance for quite a while now, with speculation about what a partnership between the two companies could mean, ranging from speech-recognition tech being somehow integrated into Apple’s North Carolina data center to talk of text-to-speech baked into iOS. It looks like the latter will be arriving soon, possibly supported by assistance from cloud processing provided by the former. Although keep in mind that as an unannounced feature appearing only in a prerelease build, it may be that users won’t get their hands on it until a later iOS update, or ever, if any agreement that may exist between Apple and Nuance falls through.

Apple also acquired voice-recognition-based digital assistant app Siri last year. Siri combines various data sources to allow it to provide comprehensive and convenient answers to a question asked by a user. In theory, Apple could use it in combination with Nuance tech to create an intelligent Swiss army knife voice-activated launcher/search/command interface for iOS. A system-wide voice-input button like the one spotted by 9to5Mac in this beta build makes that a much more realistic possibility.

Some will accuse Apple of “copying” Android’s best features in order to stay in the mobile race, but I say as long as in doing so Cupertino makes the iPhone user experience even better, more power to it.

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