Talking to Yourself

January 26th, 2015

When the iPhone first integrated Siri I spent some time with it. I asked it stupid questions, insulted it, complimented it, asked for jokes, and did all the silly and quickly clichéd stuff one does when confronted with new technology. This, a friend once suggested to me, is the period of “getting the cheese out.” Then, after that initial exploration, I largely ignored it. I suspect this is the case for most people. Siri’s utility wasn’t immediately compelling and was clearly an early work in progress. In fact, Apple even called it beta. Google’s voice technology was a little better, but I didn’t find that particularly useful either. This was partly due to it’s lack of integration into the system in iOS, and partly due to the fact that it’s still mainly useful for Google-y things.

Then one day, I noticed the little microphone button on the keyboard — or rather, I stopped ignoring it. I’ve started using voice dictation for small things like text messages, notes to myself, or Google searches. It actually works pretty well. It’s occasionally a little slow, especially if when you have poor internet connectivity, but most of the time it’s quick and surprisingly accurate. I frequently find it useful, especially in situations where it’s inconvenient to stop and type. It does, I admit, sometimes feel silly talking to my phone but if you put the phone up to your head you can always pretend you’re on a call. Plus, I live in Brooklyn, so I’m unlikely to be the weirdest person people around me see that day, no matter what inanimate object I start talking to.

What may be slowing widespread adoption of this technology is not that it doesn’t work well, but that it takes practice. When we talk we use language differently than when we write. In order to get comfortable with dictation, one has to learn how to speak the way that one writes. It can be awkward to dictate even casual communications. I often find myself starting to talk to my phone only to realize three words into it that I don’t know how to to finish my thought.

This reminds me of the moment Apple introduced the touchscreen keyboard. Legions of loyal Blackberry users declared that you would take their physical keyboards only when you pried them from their cold, dead hands. Tech pundits declared that the iPhone would never survive in the face of an Android ecosystem that included devices with physical keyboards (and of course Flash…heh). But here we are, 6 years later, and the physical smartphone keyboard is all but extinct. It turns out that typing on a touchscreen isn’t really that bad. Of course there are holdouts, but they’re outliers.

A couple of factors aided the quick transition to touchscreen keyboards. Smartphone market penetration was low when the iPhone was released in 2007, so most people didn’t have to re-learn how to type on mobile, just learn. Also, for most of us, the benefits clearly outweighed the costs: in exchange for ditching our keyboards, we get thin, light devices with large, beautiful screens. If you don’t prefer hardware keyboards, and actually I don’t, it’s just a win all around.

So now we’re in a position where everyone knows how to type on their phone. The utility of dictating to it, however, is not as obvious. Typing on a smartphone, while less than ideal, is familiar and doesn’t need to be learned. When you want to send a text message, you’re generally not looking to practice dictating a text message. But I suspect that this will change. The technology is just about good enough already. Typing on a tiny keyboard, touchscreen or physical, is still annoying enough that the utility of dictation is likely to become increasingly apparent.

If I really wanted to put my money where my mouth is I suppose I should have dictated this post. But that highlights another challenge of dictation: I work in a variety of environments and while I don’t mind looking a little crazy, I do need to respect those around me.