Review: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5

Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a voice dictation system for Windows, and there is a similar but not identical version available for the Mac. I have been trying version 11.5 in its Premium edition.

Voice recognition is interesting on several levels. Dictation can be quicker than typing, avoids repetitive strain injury, and for some users may be the only practical way to input text and control a computer.

Voice control is also a computing aspiration. In science fiction novels and films from 40 or 50 years ago, the characters use voice to interact with computers like Asimov’s Multivac or Kubrick’s HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a matter of course. It has proved a difficult problem though, and even the best voice recognition systems are frustrating to work with, since mistakes are frequent and corrections difficult.

That said, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the best I have used. Let me answer a few questions:

Q: Is Dragon good enough to use for real work?

A: Yes. Fire up Dragon, then Microsoft Word, start dictating, and you can write a document without too much pain. Of course there will be errors, but Dragon has an excellent correction system. In the following example, I said “The reason” but Dragon heard “Losing”. I then spoke the command “Select losing” and Dragon popped up a selection box.


Now I just have to say “Choose 1” and the error will be fixed.

It is not always so easy, and you may have to spell words like place names and specialist vocabulary, but Dragon learns and you get better at dictating, so perseverance pays.

Dragon has a sidebar which is great when you are learning the system, as it shows brief contextual help for the most commonly used commands. It does occupy significant screen space, so best used when you have a large screen or more than one display.

Q: What is the key to success with dictation?

First, use a good microphone. Some editions of Dragon come with a Plantronics Bluetooth headset, which is ideal for the task. Trying to dictate using the mic built into a laptop, or one of those cheap gaming mics, will only lead to frustration.

Second, be patient. Your first day or two with Dragon will be frustrating, but it gets better.

A quiet room also helps, but with a headset this is not so critical.

Q: Is Dragon good enough that you would use it by choice, even when you could use keyboard and mouse?

For me, not yet. I type professionally, so I am pretty fast, and I do find Dragon gets in the way. If I could reel off a few thousand words in one blast, I might use Dragon, but in practice I find I need to task-switch frequently, checking a fact, searching the web, finding a screenshot, or listening to an interview. You can do almost anything in Windows using Dragon, but using a mouse and and keyboard is much quicker. If you use Dragon just for dictation that is fine, though you do have to set Dragon to stop listening when you are performing other tasks, otherwise Dragon will do something unexpected.

Work patterns vary, and some voices are easier than others for Dragon to interpret, so this is a matter of individual preference.

Q: Do you need Dragon when Windows has its own voice recognition system?

I did a quick test. I read the following paragraph, from a guide book that happens to be close by:


This little book is not properly a “guide” but rather a collection of random notes and thoughts, and I have published it mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from Wroxham with Broads Tours.

Windows 7:

This little book it is not properly A “guide” but rather a collection of London dates and courts, and I had published in mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from locks on withdrawn schools.


This little book is not properly a “guide” but rather a collection of random notes and thoughts, and I have published it mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from locks and with Broads Tours.

Not a rigorous test; but with my voice and on this particular passage Dragon is well ahead, and that accords with my general impression. I do think the Windows system is usable, but the extra cost of Dragon is worth it if you expect to use dictation frequently.

Q: Any other snags with Dragon?

Yes. Dragon hooks deeply into Windows, as it must do in order to control things like window switching and mouse movement, and I saw an impact on performance and stability. I suspect this can be improved by fine-tuning Dragon’s configuration and by keeping Windows as plain as possible. It also seems to work much better with software for which it is specifically designed, such as Microsoft Office, than with generic text input into software it does not know about, such as Windows Live Writer.

Q: What is new in version 11.5?

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 is a free upgrade from 11. The most obvious new feature from 11 is that you can use an iPhone as a remote wi-fi microphone. I tried this, which requires creating a new profile specifically for the purpose, and found it works nearly as well as with the Plantronics headset. However, the headset is a lot more convenient so I am not sure what is the benefit.

There are also new commands including “Post to Twitter” and “Post to Facebook”, and both the user interface and the voice recognition engine have been fine-tuned in this version.

Finally, version 11.5 specifically supports Windows 7 SP1 and Internet Explorer 9.

Q: Any other features worth mentioning?

The Premium edition has a transcription feature. No, this will not successfully interpret your recorded interview, though I suppose this might work in ideal circumstances. Rather, it is intended to let you dictate into a recording device for transcription later. This is an interesting way of working. It is easier to pause and restart a recorder than to interrupt a live dictation session, and Dragon can take more time over analysing a recording than when it has to keep up with your voice.

Concluding remarks

Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking gets significantly better with each new version, tipping me further towards the point where I may start using it in preference to typing. It is not only a matter of improved algorithms, but also more powerful hardware that enables Dragon to do more intensive processing. Although I am not quite ready to use it myself day to day, I think this is a brilliant product, and would not hesitate to recommend it. I also think it is inevitable that voice dictation will eventually become the norm for text input, at least in quiet environments, as the technology continues to improve.


Review: The Bowie Variations by Mike Garson

I am a big David Bowie fan (as I guess will be most purchasers of this CD) and first noticed Garson’s work in the magnificent, edgy accompaniment to Aladdin Sane – specifically, that track, though he makes a great contribution to the entire album.


Garson played on many of Bowie’s albums, from Ziggy Stardust through to Reality, and made a key contribution to the sound. I particularly like his work on David Live, Bowie’s live album from 1974, but it is consistently good, which is no doubt why he remained part of the band.

This CD is I guess a kind of tribute and reflection on his work with Bowie; one of the tracks is actually called Tribute to David. Garson performs solo piano variations on a number of Bowie’s songs. Note that these are variations, not performances as such, and since Garson is a creative jazz pianist they really are variations; in some cases it takes a while to work out what the song is, even if you know Bowie’s version well.

The performance is excellent, and the recording quality is outstanding. Nevertheless I was a little disappointed; found it a little too mellow and smooth for my taste. Perhaps Garson needs the interplay with the band to spark that edgy quality that I love.

Kingston Wi-Drive extends iOS storage, but not hassle-free

I have been trying out the Kingston Wi-Drive, which expands the storage of an iOS device using a pocketable wireless solid-state drive.


The unit is about the size of a mobile phone, but smoother and lighter, and available with capacity of 16GB or 32GB.

The drive comes with a minimalist instruction leaflet which tells you to charge it by attaching the USB cable to a PC or Mac, add content by accessing it as an external drive, and then when charged, download and run the free Wi-Drive app on your iPad or iPhone.

I got this working without too much trouble. I added a movie to the drive and was able to watch it on an iPad, which is handy given that there is no DVD drive, though if it was sourced from a DVD you have to work out how to rip the DVD to a file first. I also added some documents and pictures, and was able to view these on iOS without any issues.


The app seems to be designed primarily for iPhone, which means it looks a little odd on an iPad, though it does run full-screen. There is a thumbnail view, for images, and for documents there is an option to open them in apps that understand the file format. For example, I could open a Word 2010 document in Pages.

So far so good; but I found some annoyances. The first is that when you connect to the Wi-Drive, you are no longer connected to the Internet unless you also have 3G. The solution is to go into the Wi-Drive settings and configure your normal wi-fi connection as a bridge. The leaflet does not mention this, but it is explained here.

The bridge did not work at first. I had to change my Netgear router so that it is WPA 2 only, rather than supporting both WPA and WPA 2. This is mentioned in the FAQ:

Wi-Drive’s bridge function supports a single security protocol only: WEP, WPA, or WPA2. These may also appear as WPA ONLY, WPA2 ONLY, etc. Wi-Drive does NOT support mixed mode.

I also configured security on the Wi-Drive wi-fi connection. By default, it is wide open to your neighbours; and if you have the bridge enabled, bypasses the security of your home wi-fi connection as well. On the other hand, the fact that up to three users can connect is a good thing if, for example, you wanted to share some files with friends or colleagues at a meeting.

If you are using the device on the road, in a cafe or airport for example, it would be difficult to connect to the internet as well as to the drive. If you are flying, the airline will probably not allow you to use the Wi-Drive.

Most annoying is that when the device is connected to a computer, the contents become inaccessible. Even connecting to a USB charger seems to be enough to disable it. When it is not connected to a computer, the battery starts running down; it only lasts 4 hours.

This means that you should not think of the Wi-Drive as permanently attached storage. Rather, think of it as something you can switch on when needed.

Poking around on the drive, I noticed that it has the Apache web server installed. When the bridge is operating, you can browse to the device from a web browser on your computer and access the contents or change the settings.


This is a handy device; but it could be better. I would like to see a memory card slot – and Kingston would benefit as it sells memory cards – as well as a longer battery life. Kingston also needs to fix it so you can use it on iOS while it is connected to a computer and charging. The Wi-Drive app could do with a bit more polish too, particularly the iPad version.

As it is, the Wi-Drive is great if it exactly fits your need, but make sure you can live with it before parting with your money.

Adobe MAX 2011 and the future of Flash

The unstated theme of Adobe MAX 2011 last week was this: what is the future of Flash? The issue being that with HTML 5 ascendant and Apple wrecking the idea of Flash as an ubiquitous web plug-in, should Adobe be frantically retooling its design tools for HTML and apps, or does Flash still have a future?


The answer is a little of both; but let’s be clear: there was more Flash than HTML at MAX. What was the most eye-catching demo? It was Flash running Unreal Tournament with the claim of better graphical performance than on Microsoft Xbox 360 or Sony Playstation 3.

It is also worth noting that the touch apps demonstrated at the day one keynote were created in Flash and compiled into apps using the new Captive Runtime feature in AIR 3.

At the same time there was a substantial amount of HTML effort on show. There was the announced acquisition of Nitobi, makers of PhoneGap – though note that PhoneGap itself is heading to the Apache Foundation – and demos of the Edge motion and interaction tool for HTML5. Adobe also told us about its work on CSS Regions and CSS  Shaders. I also saw how HTML export, including partial ActionScript to JavaScript conversion, is coming in a future version of Flash Professional.

My perception is that while Adobe is serious about stepping up a gear with its HTML tools, its heart is still with Flash. That said, there is a shift of emphasis away from Flash as a web plug-in, other than when it is the “Games console of the Web”, and towards Flash and Flex as a cross-platform development platform. Adobe is using Flash and AIR for its own Touch apps, previewed at MAX.

Let me add that the new features in AIR are huge, in particular the ability to package the Flash runtime as part of your app, called Captive Runtime, and the ability to extend your AIR app with native code. Cross-platform mobile tools are a particular interest of mine, and Adobe’s offering is strong in this field, though it will never be the most efficient. Adobe is also pressing ahead with something like web workers for ActionScript, providing a form of concurrency, though this is not in AIR 3 but planned for a future release. Another big new feature in the Flash runtime is Stage 3D, accelerated 3D graphics which enabled the Unreal demo mentioned above.

Nitobi’s Andre Charland was at MAX and I could not shake off the thought that he will find joining the Flash company difficult.


It will be near-impossible for Adobe to be equally enthusiastic about both PhoneGap and AIR, and given that Flash and AIR are so deeply woven into the company’s products I suggest that PhoneGap is more likely to be neglected.

Take a look at Adobe’s agenda for the Back from MAX event in London next month. It is 100% Flash and Flex.

What about the MAX attendees? I have contradictory evidence here. I noticed that a session on Building mobile apps with HTML, CSS and JavaScript (ie PhoneGap) was packed out, while the session running at the same time on What’s new in AIR – and what’s next was sparsely attended. This session was repeated, which means Adobe thought it would be a popular one. I was also surprised by how few went along to hear about Flash Professional Sneak Peek: a glimpse at the future which was a fascinating session if you are interested in the future of this tool. Adobe must have been surprised too, as it was in a large room.


That said, a session on native extensions for AIR was moved from one of the smallest rooms to one of the biggest and was still full. There was also great interest in concurrency in the Flash runtime. Many of the attendees I spoke to saw themselves as Flash and Flex developers and there was more talk about how to fight off the perception that the tech world is moving to HTML, than of how to encourage it.

Getting rid of Flash may seem like obvious progress to someone annoyed by the Adobe updater, or who is an Apple iOS enthusiast, or who does not like the idea of proprietary plugins. It does not feel like that though if you have a browser-hosted app to maintain and enjoy targeting a single runtime rather than testing in every browser, as well as using features of Flash that are hard to replicate in HTML.

Adobe’s design and development platform is still Flash-centric, which is either good or bad news depending on your perspective.

See also Down but not out: Flash in an HTML5 world.

Drobo storage devices: beyond RAID

I attended Digital Winter in London this week, an event where gadgets are shown to the press.


One that caught my eye was the Drobo range of storage devices. The market is saturated with external storage solutions, but Drobo has a neat system where you simply slot any 3.5” Sata drive – no drive bracket required – into one of its units and it will add it to a pool of storage. Drobo supports thin provisioning, which means you will typically create a volume on the pool that is bigger than the space actually available. When you are running out of space, a light on the unit will turn yellow, you buy another drive and slot it in. Presuming you have two or more drives, RAID-like resiliency is built in, though Drobo calls its system BeyondRAID because of its greater flexibility. There is even an option for dual disk redundancy, so that any two drives can fail without loss of data.

I was reminded of Microsoft’s new Storage Spaces in Windows Server 8 which offers some similar features, but of course is not yet available except in early preview.

Drobo boxes support USB, FireWire, and in the high-end models iSCSI.


The snag: prices start at €359,00 for the 4 Bay firewire and USB 2.0 model, and the one you really want, the 8-bay DroboPro with iSCSI, is €1359.00. In the business range, the 12-bay iSCSI SAN is €10,799 and supports SAS as well as Sata drives.

Document security and Apple iCloud

I have just set up iCloud on three Apple devices: a Mac, an iPad 2, and an iPhone 4.


On the iOS devices I was asked if I wanted to use iCloud, and when I agreed, watched as all my documents were transferred from the device to

I then went to the iCloud website, signed in with my Apple ID – username and password – and saw that all my documents were there ready for download.

I also tried editing a document on the iPhone. In moments, the edited document was also updated on the iPad.

All very convenient; but I realised that I’d just sent up to the cloud a couple of documents that include information I do not want to share. How safe is it on iCloud? Does Apple encrypt the documents?

I looked at Apple’s iCloud information and on the support site and found nothing about security on a quick look, other than that traffic is SSL encrypted, so here are my own observations.

First, access to is protected only by the username and password which form your Apple ID. Sony recently reported a breach of 93,000 accounts on the PlayStation network, apparently based on a list of username/password combinations that a hacker found elsewhere. In other words, some other popular site(s) suffered a security breach, and the hacker automated an attack on the PlayStation Network on the assumption that the same credentials might be used there. The majority failed, but 93,000 succeeded, demonstrating that this is not a small risk.

Second, I wondered if I could mitigate the risk by encrypting my iCloud documents. I cannot find a way to set a password on a Pages document in iOS, but I can do so on the Mac. I password-protected a document, and then uploaded it to iCloud. Next, I opened this on the iPad. I was prompted for the password – good. However, I then modified the document in Pages on the iPad. This automatically updated the document on iCloud, but it was no longer password protected. I do not recall seeing a warning about the password protection being removed. It looks as if password protection does not iWork if you use iOS.

Third, I found this statement in Apple’s terms of service for It is repeated in the terms for MobileMe, and which I cannot yet find terms for it may well be the same there too:

Access to Your Account and Content

You acknowledge and agree that Apple may access, use, preserve and/or disclose your account information and Content if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief that such access, use, disclosure, or preservation is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process or request; (b) enforce these TOS, including investigation of any potential violation thereof; (c) detect, prevent or otherwise address security, fraud or technical issues; or (d) protect the rights, property or safety of Apple, its users or the public as required or permitted by law.

I guess what this means is that if you have confidential documents, is not a sensible place to keep them.

I would like to see some way of disabling cloud sync for specified documents, but as far as I can tell there is no such feature yet.

Further, if your Apple ID is the same username and password that you use on dozens of other sites on which you have been required to register, it would be worth changing it to something long and unique. I would also suggest reviewing the insecurity questions, which are not for your protection, but to reduce the number of password reset requests which support have to deal with. The best answers are those which are not true and therefore potentially discoverable, but made-up ones, as essentially these are secondary passwords.

New Sony PlayStation Network hack: not as bad as you may have heard

Sony’s Chief Security Officer Philip Reitinger has reported a new attack on the PlayStation network leading to headlines stating Sony hacked again. Has the company not learned from the incidents earlier this year?

Actually, it probably has; the new hacking attempt does not exploit any weakness in Sony’s network unless you consider any system reliant on username/password to be weak – not an unreasonable opinion, but given that the likes of Apple and Amazon and PayPal still use it, hardly fair to single out Sony.

If you read the statement carefully, it says that somebody obtained a large list of username/password pairs and ran them against Sony’s network. Further:

given that … the overwhelming majority of the pairs resulted in failed matching attempts, it is likely the data came from another source and not from our Networks

Because of the large number of PlayStation users, there were still 93,000 successful matches, which to its credit Sony says it detected – presumably there was a pattern to the attack, such as a limited range of source IP numbers or other evidence of automated log-in attempts.

If Sony is right, and the list of passwords came from another source, there is no reason why the hacker might not try the same list against other targets and this is not evidence of a weakness in the PlayStation network itself.

As Reitinger notes:

We want to take this opportunity to remind our consumers about the increasingly common threat of fraudulent activity online, as well as the importance of having a strong password and having a username/password combination that is not associated with other online services or sites. We encourage you to choose unique, hard-to-guess passwords and always look for unusual activity in your account.

It is good advice, though can be impractical if you have a very large number of online accounts. Something like PasswordSafe or Keypass is near-essential for managing them, if you are serious about maintaining numerous different combinations.

From what we know so far though, this is not evidence of continued weakness in the PlayStation network; rather, it is evidence of the continued prevalence of hacking attempts. Kudos to Sony for its open reporting.

Subversion 1.7 released: just one .svn directory per working copy

Yesterday saw the 1.7 release of Subversion, the widely used open source version control system. It is a significant release with many new features, bug-fixes and performance improvements, and I suggest reading the release notes or complete change log. One thing to highlight is that the default working copy metadata storage is now a single sqlite database per working copy, rather than a .svn direction containing metadata in sub-directory.

I upgraded my TortoiseSVN, which is already updated to 1.7, and tried upgrading one of my own projects. Here is the .svn folder before the upgrade:


and after


Those pesky .svn folders can be a nuisance so this is a welcome change, although there is a downside as the release notes warn:

It is not safe to copy an SQLite file while it’s being accessed via the SQLite libraries. Consequently, duplicating a working copy (using tar, cp, or rsync) that is being accessed by a Subversion process is not supported for Subversion 1.7 working copies, and may cause the duplicate (new) working copy to be created corrupted.

Subversion is less fashionable since the advent of distributed version control systems like git and mercurial; though for corporate development Subversion remains popular because a centralised system is easier to control.

WANdisco’s Jessica Thornsby has a helpful post on the new 1.7 features more details on the benefits of the new working copy metadata managements system.

Adobe: no new features for open source BlazeDS data services

Adobe’s Damon Cooper, who runs the BlazeDS and Data Services team at Adobe, has posted about BlazeDS vs the paid-for Data Services.

It is a curious post, in that he simultaneously highlights new features coming in Data Services 4.6 while also giving a number of reasons not to use BlazeDS.

BlazeDS is the free and open source version of Data Services, for publish/subscribe messaging and remote object invocation of Java objects in a Flash or AIR application.

He points out that the LGPL licence may be problematic; he emphasises that BlazeDS is unsupported; he says that while it is open source there are no non-Adobe committers; and as the knock-out punch adds:

Additionally, while we will absolutely be making sure we keep BlazeDS fresh and the bug fixes flowing, we don’t currently have any major new features planned for BlazeDS. That could change, but we’re currently full-out on delivering innovation to our customers have asked for in Data Services and we are full steam ahead there. 

It does sound like a retreat to me; and while I do not think Adobe is under any moral obligation to continue developing BlazeDS it does make me wonder what has changed between the moment in 2007 when Adobe decided it was a good idea to open source part of its LiveCycle Data Services, and today.

At Adobe MAX last week Adobe announced the acquisition of Nitobi and with it the open source PhoneGap project. PhoneGap is heading to the Apache Foundation – probably a good thing considering that Adobe sometimes seems to struggle when it comes to managing open source software.

Google offers the web a new language called Dart – but why?

Google has announced an early preview of Dart, a new language for web applications. The news is not a surprise, especially if you have been keeping track of the developer conference GOTO Aarhus, whose organisers had pre-announced that Google would be announcing its new language there, as indeed it did.


Dart is a curly-brace language like JavaScript, Java, C, C++ and C#. In Dart, as in C# and Java, a class can implement multiple interfaces, but only inherit from a single class. Dart supports both static and dynamic typing. Google says it can be executed by a Dart VM, or converted to JavaScript:

Dart code can be executed in two different ways: either on a native virtual machine or on top of a JavaScript engine by using a compiler that translates Dart code to JavaScript. This means you can write a web application in Dart and have it compiled and run on any modern browser. The Dart VM is not currently integrated in Chrome but we plan to explore this option.

Google also says that you will be able to “execute Dart code directly in a VM on the server side”, so you can infer that Google has Dart in mind as an alternative PHP as well as to JavaScript. The company is using the phrase “structured web programming” to describe Dart, and this phrase appears in the announcement and as the subtitle on the Dart site. The implication is that JavaScript code tends to be poorly structured and that Dart will promote more maintainable code.

In the preview Dart only runs in Chrome, Safari 5 and Firefox 4+ – spot the missing browser vendors.

At first glance, Dart looks like a promising language, though I find myself asking what it is really for, when it bears a strong family resemblance to existing languages, and bearing in mind that the Google Web Toolkit, which compiles Java to JavaScript, already enables structured programming for web applications. The list of problems which Dart solves in the technical overview is not all that compelling.

Google states that:

Developers have not been able to create homogeneous systems that encompass both client and server, except for a few cases such as Node.js and Google Web Toolkit (GWT).

This is or was one of the attractions of Microsoft Silverlight, presuming you use C# on both server and client, but Silverlight is a plug-in that was never going to run on an iPad and from which Microsoft itself is now retreating; though it is worth noting that Dart is not unlike C#, especially the latest version of C# with dynamic features.

I guess that Dart is a consequence of the failure of ECMAScript 4.0, which was a cooperative effort to create a more modern and advanced JavaScript. Google is now going it alone; the key question is whether it can win support from others such as Apple and Microsoft, or whether this will be a Google language for Google on the server and Chrome on the client, or an interesting experiment that never really catches on.

Do we need Dart? I would value hearing from others what you think of Google’s proposal.