NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Now it might really be time to say, "Computer ... take a message."
Quick. What do
have in common, besides an indomitable desire to rule the world? They've all sunk bazillions into so-called voice-recognition technology. Microsoft has built speech-to-text software into its operating systems since the beginning of the millennium. Google packs voice-activated search into its Android mobile devices. And Ford has bet big on voice-based SYNC technology to help control its cars.
Now, by and large, I am a voice-rec skeptic: Unreliable voice-to-text recognition, ridiculous verbal menu commands and the inevitable proofreading of voice-created documents have made me mute to the technology. But even I, the curmudgeon, acknowledge there has been progress in talking to one's technology. Many new speech-to-text tools can work for the small business -- that is, if you're patient, don't ask too much and are willing to drop $60 on a decent headset from a known maker such as
Here are my top voice-rec tools for the small business:
Microsoft Windows 7 Speech Recognition (free with Home Premium Edition):
Year in and year out, no company hides its most interesting products better than Microsoft. And sure enough, this year powerful voice recognition technology has been buried inside every last copy of Windows 7. Simply go to the Windows control panel, open the Ease of Access folder and you'll find a perfectly reasonable tool called "Speech Recognition." Who knew, right? Setup is pretty easy: Plug in your headset, put it on, chat into the tutorial for about a half-hour and you will be able to enter type into documents with just your voice. It's not bad.
Now, be warned, there's no transcendent "I'm a PC and Windows 7 was my idea" commercial moment lurking here. You will struggle. But with a morning's tinkering, you really can do your e-mail with no hands. And considering that your newly freed mitts can do other work, it's a slick trick, indeed.
Google Android Search by Voice (free with Google Android phones):
Though it requires a soft techno touch, and a quiet room, Google has included a decent voice-activated search tool on all the Google Android phones I am aware of. The voice search function is way simple: Just hit the microphone logo on the upper right of the search bar and, poof, Search by Voice will prompt you to speak basic terms into the Google bar. Now, voice search is not the place for the deep data dive on, say, ancient Laotian woks. Only basic search queries generate reasonable results. We're talking "New York Pizza" or "Las Vegas Mexican Food." But overall, results can help the harried entrepreneur.
Just do not expect anything close to good results with the voice-activated Google Maps Navigation tool. That thing literally has never worked for me in more than six months of testing. And folks at Google have never been able to explain to me why.
If one or both of the previous tools seem to work in your shop, you probably should bite the bullet and invest in real voice control software.
Nuance's Dragon Naturally Speaking
is the pick. The tool has probably been in development longer than any other, and does a good job of learning your speech as you go.
Be warned: The most inane writing you do will be when you talk to your documents. So please, edit everything carefully! But Naturally Speaking does offer reasonable text recognition and, with practice, can allow you to create simple business letters. And that makes a nice break for your tired hands and gives your small business a high-tech edge.
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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on Fox News and The WB.