Mountain Lion, the next big software cat for your Mac, has a gazillion new features. Too many to name and too many to care about. But there's one you should pay attention to, because it might change all of computing.
Dictation is one of the most straightforward new parts of Mac OS X Mountain Lion — it's so simple that it's easy to overlook. All you do is double-tap a button, start talking wherever you'd type, and your computer fills in the words you speak. It's a stellar replacement for the bulk of casual typing that fills up our conscious hours. And it's fast! — you truly feel like you've got an attentive secretary stuck somewhere in that tiny aluminium chassis. Apple says Dictation will even adapt to your voice over time, making it more accurate and attuned the more you plough through it. Neat.
It's not Siri — it's built on the same voice-recognition technology, but it won't answer questions for you. Just as well, since Siri doesn't really work beyond affirming Zooey Deschanel's belief in rain. But it could still be just as big as any digitised voice that spits back factoids and Starbucks directions. This could be Apple's first great stab at killing the keyboard for good.
All of the signs are here. Mountain Lion folds in iOS features to the desktop mix, interlocking a notification centre, sharing buttons, as well as mimicking what we've been doing on our phones and iPads with iCloud. Don't forget that these are devices that lack keyboards. Instead, we have to use our fingers on a virtual keyboard, which works pretty well on a phone, but just OK on an iPad. It's the reason nobody is ever going to write anything substantive on a tablet. Your fingers on that glass just don't cut it. But you know what's worse than an average virtual keyboard? Plugging in an actual keyboard. A major slice of the tablet's gleaming appeal is its simplicity — everything you need is crammed into that aluminium plane, without the need for peripherals.
But if iOS and pinching and touching and swiping and wiping are the future of computers, how do we type our way out of the keyboard necessity? We don't — we talk our way out of it.
"Talking is the new typing," Apple declares in the list of Mountain Lion's new features. This is marketing, sure, but it's got chewy bits of truth in it too. If the tech we use with our mobile gadgets and the tech we love about our laptops and desktops will someday merge, Apple needs us to get used to talking to machines (and eventually TVs). Siri still makes us a little uncomfortable, and perhaps that's a function of her cluelessness. But for firing off tweets, filling in comments and updating Facebook? You can do all of this with a double tap of the Fn button to trigger Dictation and a third tap to conclude. Your Mac will process for a moment, and then drop the text — you can even say "exclamation point" or "comma" to add those in, although that's still a little wonky. But even with wonkiness, there's something lovely about not having to touch the keyboard.
It's more than just sloth: a keyboard feels like overkill for the hyper-short, hyper-quick way we sling text around these days. And with so much of Apple's design emphasis placed on trackpad touch gestures already, your hands don't long for the letters as much as you think. All this could start to rewire our brains away from a dependency on a button setup from the 19th century, and towards an inexorable date with touch and talk destiny.
Dictation still requires you to talk a little like a 1990s cyborg, and it's nowhere near accurate enough for, say, writing an article or an essay. But it's young technology, and one that might soon become powerful to make terms like "CMD + Q" or "CTRL + ALT + DEL" feel as obsolete and distant as the things we hammered them out on. So when Mountain Lion finds its way onto your system in coming months, consider double-tapping that Fn button and muttering a little. Experiment — because the day Dictation goes from a neat trick to a computing necessity could be closer than you think.