Rival companies tend to badmouth each other, which can be very entertaining. However, the main players in voice recognition - IBM and Lamp;H - are oddly mute. This is probably because both know their products are now mature and increasingly effective with each version.
While relative newcomer Lamp;H claims market share, IBM insists independent market research shows it sells more than any other firm; some products are bundled with new PCs. IBM has been researching and developing voice recognition technology for 30 years - and it shows. The company holds 20 patents in the field and has a range of products for different tasks, including voice-enabled e-business on the Web and speech-enabled PDAs (personal digital assistants - the popular Palm Pilot III).
IBM predicts 30 per cent of PC users will use voice recognition by 2002. A survey of its users found they were entering text up to 53 per cent faster by dictation than by typing It's not helpful to try assessing which product on these pages is best as all are excellent - it's a question of which is best for you. IBM's ViaVoice has just reached its eighth edition on PC and it is sufficiently impressive to make a professional sceptic like myself realise it is technology I must use to keep down keystrokes since I have symptoms of Repetitive Strain Injury.
In its Standard edition ViaVoice is best used for straight dictation into Word Pad (its own text handler) or Microsoft Word, for which it works extremely well with significantly improved accuracy over previous versions. It does more than mere dictation, but it is the Pro edition, with the same degree of accuracy, that allows you to do so much more with your PC. It offers extended control of your Windows environment and Microsoft Office, even surfing the Web.
Both are quicker to set up and a new template tool, Voice Documents, makes it easier to dictate into commonly used documents, e-mails, forms, faxes etc. Voice Marks is a new text-to-speech tool to help develop macros for frequently used tasks. The vocabulary has been boosted by 50 per cent, from 100,000 to 150,000, and now includes postcodes and 21,000 proper and place names.
As with rival products, don't think you can just switch on and start dictating. If you are expecting Star Trek performance, pack the Mr Spock spacesuit away right now. These programs are highly sophisticated but psychic they ain't. You have to invest time getting to know each other and this pays dividends. Reading selections from Alison in Wonderland to your laptop may seem rather Mad Hatter but it's worth it. One of the few differences that marks it out from other programs, ViaVoice, uniquely, ecords your voice in memory so you can hear what you actually said, not the simulated approximation (albeit good) of rivals. This feature can prove useful for developing accuracy and teaching new words.
Like its rivals, IBM has done much to improve the amount of time needed to get started (10 minutes is the usual claim) but the simple truth is that voice recognition requires training - both ways - for commensurate improvements in performance.
Accuracy is astonishingly good when you consider the quality of these programs even two years ago. With a suitable set-up, many can now dictate text into their computers quicker and more accurately than they can type.
A major IBM strength is that ViaVoice is now available for the Macintosh, unlike rival products which are PC-only. This is a major attraction for those people who are in a worldwide minority of 20 million Apple users. So now they can use the same, familiar product on both PC and Mac.
While the Mac product is limited compared to its PC sibling, it is still extremely effective. Essentially it is a purely dictation product - and a highly efficient one at that. It does not allow you to move between programs and manipulate the Mac in the same way as ViaVoice Professional does on PCs. However, that will surely come. The next "enhanced" version will include a USB microphone (pound;20 extra) which is good news for people using iBooks and MacCubes, machines that don't have normal audio connections.
An advantage for people using ViaVoice with Macs is that integrated multimedia has always been a strength at Apple. So there isn't the wide variety of sound cards you would encounter on PCs. (Six recent PC laptops and desktops were rejected before suitable hardware was encountered for this review, an Armada laptop. Thank you Compaq for not compromising on sound card quality.) In the face of intense competition, IBM has pulled off an impressive feat and made ViaVoice a first-class product for both Windows PCs and Apple Macs. Just remember to follow IBM's advice on minimum machine specifications; much of the disappointment people experience with voice recognition is because of unsuitable hardware. May all the competition continue.
* ViaVoice for Windows, Standard Edition For Windows 95, 98, ME, NT4,
ViaVoice for Windows, Pro Edition For Windows 95, 98, ME
ViaVoice for Mac
For Macs with 64Mb memory and System 8.5.1 upwards
NB check IBM's minimum hardware specifications. All come with free headsets (Apple with colour fittings for iMacs)
* ONLINE STAR RATING
Suitability for purpose: ****
Ease of use: ****
Value for money: *****