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New Tools Bolster Mac's World

Apple has been on a hot streak.

Software like MacSpeech Dictate, a speech-recognition program, and Office 2008 could help draw buyers to the Mac.

Office 2008 for Mac.
Microsoft
Office 2008 for Mac.

After years of muddling along with a 2 percent share of the personal computer market and a small cult of rabid fans, the company is moving the hardware. Fourth-quarter sales and profit hit a company record as 2.3 million Macs were sold. The company’s market share was 6.1 percent as the year ended.

The fickle folks on Wall Street have been dumping the stock this week, but almost everybody knows somebody who recently switched to a Mac.

There are all kinds of theories to explain the sudden resurgence: the lack of viruses, the iPod halo effect, the critical mass of Apple stores, the disappointing debut of Windows Vista, all those Apple TV ads, the switch to Intel chips (meaning that Windows programs run on a Mac) — or maybe all of it together.

Whatever the reason, a virtuous cycle may soon kick in: More Mac sales lead to more software titles, which lead to more Mac sales, which lead to — well, you get it.

Indeed, this month two important software programs make their debut. One is a minor upgrade from a big company: Microsoft Office 2008 for Macintosh. The other is a big deal from a tiny company: MacSpeech Dictate, a new speech-recognition program.

Office first. The basic version of this software package ($150) comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage, an e-mail/calendar/address book program.

Office for the Mac still isn’t as powerful (or as confusing) as the Windows version, but it has its charms. For example, the Mac programs have been rewritten to exploit the modern Mac’s Intel processor (instead of running in a slower simulation mode, as Office 2004 did).

This, frankly, is the best part. When you type in Word or delete a message from Entourage, the response is smart and snappy. There’s no more fraction-of-a-second delay when you type in Word, and no more mysterious 90-second lockups in Entourage.

Furthermore, the whole thing has been successfully redesigned to match the look of Mac OS X. The fonts, color schemes and tool panels look like they’ve come straight from the designers at Apple — especially the palette that lets you drop your iPhoto pictures into Word or the other programs.

Considering the four-year gap since the last version came along, Microsoft hasn’t added much. For example, you get a global search in Entourage, formula auto-complete in Excel, control over PowerPoint slide shows with the Apple remote, and a terrific page-layout view in Word, complete with linked boxes with auto-flowing text. Office 2008 also lets you save your documents, if you like, in the new, more compact file formats of Office 2007 for Windows (ending in .docx, .xlsx and so on).

Blockbuster new features, however, are nonexistent. Worse, one old blockbuster feature is now nonexistent: macros, the recording and playback of routine steps.

This is a devastating loss to power users. In Office 2004, you could create a button that, for example, triggered several search-and-replace steps in a row, shuffled things around on a spreadsheet, or magnified what’s on your screen to 150 percent. In 2008, it’s all gone.

If you’re geekily inclined, you can recreate some of these software robots using the Mac’s own AppleScript language; Microsoft is readying a guide for doing just that. Otherwise, for Microsoft to remove any power-user features at this stage seems like a risky move; there are plenty of simpler, less expensive Office-compatible programs, including Apple’s own $80 iWork suite and the free Google Apps.

The other Mac software news this month is more exciting.

For years, the industry’s most amazing speech-recognition program has been Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows. In its latest version, I got 98.9 percent accuracy right out of the box, without even reading the training scripts.

On the Mac, though, the only speech-recognition option was a program called iListen, which was built on far less sophisticated speech technology from Philips. Seven years ago, I asked iListen’s creator, a former Dragon engineer named Andrew Taylor, why on earth he’d based his Mac program on the Philips software instead of Dragon’s.

The answer, it turns out, was that the Dragon technology would cost too much, and the conditions for using it were too onerous, in Mr. Taylor’s view. He went with the Philips software, but never gave up his dream of bringing Dragon technology to the Mac.

Eventually, the Mac’s popularity rose, new bosses took over at Nuance (the current owner of the Dragon technology) and Mr. Taylor finally landed a deal.

The new program, MacSpeech Dictate ($200 with headset), is a big deal, especially for the thousands of Mac lovers who have been running Windows all these years just so they could use Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

MacSpeech Dictate is fast and accurate, pouring correctly transcribed text into any program where you ordinarily type, as fast as you can speak. When I read a 1,000-word book excerpt, the program transcribed only nine words incorrectly — 99.1 percent accuracy. (I had read the four-minute training script and fed the program a folder full of documents I’d written, which is how you introduce special terminology and names to the program’s dictionary.)

You get a giddy feeling the first time you see Dictate in action; you can’t help contemplating how much more e-mail you’ll be able to plow through in a day, or how your aching hands will no longer have to keep up with your brain when you’re writing.

Dictate can also operate your computer. You can say “Open iMovie” or “Open Calculator,” for example. You can also speak menu commands and button names, and you can select text that you’ve already dictated earlier (“Select ‘five score and six years ago’ ”). At that point, you can delete it, format it or replace the highlighted phrase. You can also run AppleScript programs or open Web sites by voice.

All you see of the program when you’re using it are two small translucent floating windows (both of which you can hide, if you like). One contains the microphone on/off button. The other, called Available Commands, shows you what commands are available at the moment. Here’s where you discover, for example, the delightful “scratch that” command that deletes your last utterance and the “cap” command that capitalizes the next word you speak.

The program also lets you create voice macros, where you say one thing (“buzz off”) and it types out something different (“I respect your opinion, but I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one”). That’s a huge time-saver for anyone whose work entails repetitive answers or clauses.

So Dictate 1.0 is attractive, simple and Mac-like. It is not, however, as good as NaturallySpeaking 9.0 for Windows ($200). It lacks features like audio playback of what you said, a simple “add word” command, legal and medical versions, and non-English language kits.

It also lacks voice correction.

When NatSpeak makes an error, you just say “Correct ‘ax a moron’ ” (or whatever it typed); and choose from a list of alternate transcriptions. The program not only corrects the error in your document, but also learns from its mistake. Over time, the accuracy edges ever closer to 100 percent.

In Dictate 1.0, however, you have to fix transcription errors by hand. The company intends to add voice correction in a 1.1 update; in the meantime, though, your accuracy won’t improve.

The late beta version I tested has some bugs. The company intends to get these fixed by the 1.0 version’s mid-February release.

Even so, Dictate gets the big things — speed and accuracy — right, which may be enough for a lot of people. This program and the new Mac Office fill big holes in the Macintosh landscape — a landscape that’s looking brighter all the time.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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