For some time, I've been writing about my search for the perfect keyboard, one that is portable and good enough to allow me to ditch the laptop. That search may be over because Google has built new dictation software into Google Documents. Speech to text isn’t exactly new; it has been part of Google Docs for a while and Apple has offered it in IOS. However Google is taking the concept to a new level, and it's really quite spectacular.
I dictated this post on it, and it can keep up with my speaking at a normal speed. It certainly isn't perfect; there were a few errors, but it's surprising how well it works. The most powerful feature is that it understands the context of what I'm saying, so that when I use the word delete, it understands when I mean to actually delete something and when I want the word typed.
As the video above shows, you can start new lines, new paragraphs, even tables simply by asking. If you mention one of these directions when it's not in the context of your sentence, it follows the instructions. It's quite amazing to watch; if I say “go to start of document” it types it out as it decides whether I mean it as a description or an instruction.
When it's not quite sure of what you're saying, it draws a line underneath the text; when you click on that highlighted material, it gives you a list of options to choose from. There's also a long list of commands to choose from that allow you to edit, format and move around the document. The only problem it seems to have is with punctuation. (I don't know what you do to get a semicolon other than type it on the keyboard! Although it does support exclamation marks.)
Editing is a pain. While there are instructions for moving things around the page, it's not an easy process and I find that I'm using the trackpad a lot; it's much easier to copy and paste using it than the “select next paragraph” oral instructions. I suspect that if I were doing this on a tablet with a touchscreen, it might be easier.
The thought process in dictation is different too. I also find that dictating is a little bit slower than typing because I have to plan out my thoughts more carefully. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Silicon Valley's larger goal is to get consumers to interact with computers more naturally, and that means talking to them like another person rather than typing on a keyboard.” But I've had to do a lot of editing because dictation is more conversational, a different tone than how I write. I suspect that will change with practice.
The long-term implications of this are significant. I've found that the biggest problem in using a phone or a tablet as a laptop replacement has been the keyboard — if you want portability, even the smallest folding keyboards are still bigger than the phone they service, and you need a place to put them.
If you don't need a keyboard at all to do serious dictation, and if it all works on your phone as well as this does, then it's not hard to envision the keyboard disappearing in short order.