The Long, Hard Haul for MacSpeech

MacSpeech was recently acquired by Nuance, potentially opening up new avenues for Mac-based speech recognition technology. The path that led the company and founder Andrew Taylor to Nuance, however, wasn’t an easy one, and at one point even included a brush with financial ruin.

“When I first came up with the idea of founding MacSpeech, I was on a mission — I saw speech recognition on the Macintosh slipping away into obscurity,” Mr. Taylor said in a letter to investors.

In 1996, the market for speech recognition products for the Mac looked pretty bleak. PowerSecretary was the leading big name in speech recognition at the time, but its future was in question, and it hadn’t been updated for some time. “I got together with some of the people I had been working with at Articulate Systems when we produced PowerSecretary to see what we could do about updating the software and keeping it going into the future,” he said.

The group spent the next few years raising money and working to find a speech recognition engine the could license. Some of those funds came from 865 t-shirt sales at US$99 a piece. By 2000, they landed a deal with Phillips.

While MacSpeech was working on its first product, dubbed iListen, IBM was working on its own Mac-based speech recognition product called ViaVoice. iListen hit store shelves in November, but IBM beat the company to market by a few months — and nearly drove MacSpeech out of business.

“By July 2001, we were dead when you consider things strictly from a business sense, I just refused to admit it,” Mr. Taylor said. “We did not have the revenues to support the company and all but three of us had to find jobs elsewhere.”

The company was running on borrowed money and credit cards and spiraling deeper into dept.

Things changed in 2003, however, when IBM handed off its consumer speech recognition products to ScanSoft and left the market. Without any competition, MacSpeech was able to build its customer base and pay off some debt, and by 2007 was able to license the Dragon NaturallySpeeking speech engine from Nuance.

With more borrowed money in the bank, the company set to work and shipped MacSpeech Dictate in February 2008. The company eventually released an international version of Dictate, along with specialized versions for the medical and legal markets. In 2010, MacSpeech released MacSpeech Scribe, and shortly after announced that Nuance was buying the company.

While IBM handed off its Mac speech recognition products, effectively signing their death sentence, MacSpeech plans to continue on as a part of Nuance. “Being a part of Nuance, we will bring Macintosh speech recognition to the next level,” Mr. Taylor said.

“While Nuance now owns MacSpeech, many of us will continue on with Nuance,” he added. “Our focus over the coming years will be to continue what we started, leveraging the resources of our new parent and working very closely with them, to expand upon the MacSpeech Dictate product line with new features and capabilities.”

The deal also means MacSpeech’s periodic cash flow issues should come to an end, giving the team more time to focus on improvements to its product line — and ensuring customers that MacSpeech Dictate will stick around for while.

“I am not done yet,” Mr. Taylor said. “And neither is MacSpeech.”