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Surface and Voice – a marriage made in geek heaven?

Microsoft’s launch of its Surface Tablet was bound to whip up a storm of controversy. However good the product was going to be, the cries of “rip-off!
Written by Jon Collins, Contributor

Microsoft’s launch of its Surface Tablet was bound to whip up a storm of controversy. However good the product was going to be, the cries of “rip-off!” from the loyal ranks of Apple users were as inevitable as the game of, “No, they didn’t think of it first, it was…” backwards leapfrog. My take: the clipboard thought of it first. Or Moses. But anyway.

Despite this, first reports give the impression that the company really has pulled a rabbit out of the hat. While the hardware spec certainly does give Microsoft’s partners a run for their money, the tale contains a couple of clever twists – not least, that the operating system is being standardised across both phones and computers. Barring tweaks and chip-specific limitations, that’s one heck of an app store.

I’m grinning as I write the next bit. The one (more?) thing, the as-yet unmentioned consequence is that full-fat versions of voice recognition tools from the likes of Nuance will, from November, be available on a robust enough tablet device to make them sing. For the record, Dragon Dictate remains the only real contender in this space, simply because other products don’t work as well.

“Sure,” say the fans, “We have Siri.” Mark my words well – Siri is a gimmick, as is the version recently announced by Samsung for its S III. A good gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless, the fat finger equivalent of a voice-enabled input device. Which requires an Internet connection to work – so there go applications for planes, trains and cellar bars.

Apple no doubt knows this – it also knows that future versions will have far broader capabilities and applications, so it doesn’t mind too much. For all the glitz with which it was launched, Siri is a straw man, thrown over the castle walls to get the peasants used to the idea before the gates open and the real deal is marched out.

We don’t have to wait more than a few months, however. For all its training requirements, fully-fledged voice recognition has been raring to go for years. With one limitation – nobody, outside of films, has ever linked the capability to an appropriately formed device. Enter Surface, the Intel-based Windows tablet that can. And on stage right, voice recognition, its perfect marriage partner.

Now, let’s not let things run away with themselves. Nobody (least of all me) is suggesting that voice recognition will cause us to dispense with all other methods of human-computer interaction. Also, both Apple and Microsoft will bring their own recognition tools to market – we’ll see how those get on. And finally, nobody should be all surprised when new form factors (such as those made possible by projects such as Google Glass) move the tablet back down in the rankings. The time has come, however, for this particular input option to finally deliver on its potential.

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