Bloomberg Businessweek: A More Nuanced Approach to Discussing Nuance Please

Bloomberg Businessweek: A More Nuanced Approach to Discussing Nuance Please

Let me begin by making it clear that I have no formal association to Nuance, the leader in voice recognition technology and innovation. I do not work for them, they do not directly advertise on Gear Diary, and I have personally paid for all of the Nuance software I have or currently use. I have, however, beta tested upcoming products for them, and I hope to continue to do so.

Nuance “does” voice recognition, text-to-speech software, and much more. I have been using their products for years and, since encountering wrist issues associated to rheumatoid arthritis, have come to rely upon their technology. Dragon for Mac is an oft used Mac OS X program, Dragon Dictation is a key productivity app on my iPad and iPhone, and their Flex T9 keyboard is my keyboard of choice on any Android device I use. Their apps and technology are excellent. I have, at times, had a love-hate relationship with the company.

Years ago I had some issues with one of my Dragon NaturallySpeaking installs on a Windows PC, and I found their customer service to leave a good deal to desire. I also found that their user-key implementation was a headache for someone like me who changed computers with great frequency, although I don’t know if this same system is currently in place, as I now only use a Mac. Yes, at times I have had some frustrations with Nuance, but in recent years both their technology and customer service have been excellent experiences, at least for me.

In addition, I have had some concerns as I watched Nuance gobble up other companies over the years. The most notable from my perspective was Jott, a service and app that was an early productivity tool for me when I began using the iPhone, but I understood what Nuance was doing. They were at the leading edge when it came to voice recognition, and they wanted to stay there. They wanted to go to the next level and were committed to doing just that.

Yesterday Bloomberg Businessweek published a rather scathing article about Nuance and its approach to business; it was heavy-handed and one might say once-sided. Using the recent rumors about an acquisition or formal partnership with Apple as the jump-off point, it spoke about the fact that Nuance has bought 43 different companies since current CEO Paul Ricci took the helm in 2000.

[Note: I have tried to get information from Nuance verifying or denying whether something is coming but to no avail. I will note, as I have previously, that I expect a deep integration of Nuance’s technology in iOS 5.0. It just makes sense for Apple and would, on many levels, be a “match made in heaven” and a productivity home-run for consumers.]

It is striking that the article used the Apple rumors as its starting point, since many of the criticisms levied in it could be made with regard to Steve Jobs and Apple as well. The article uses terms like “lawsuit happy” and “strong-arm tactics”. It says Ricci seeks “to weaken innovative rivals so he can buy them on the cheap or put them out of business”. It quotes Vlingo CEO, one of the companies Ricci pursued describing Nuance in the most unflattering manner. And all that comes in just the first three paragraphs!

Words matter. A writer for Businessweek knows that only too well, and the words that he chose to use or quote others using were no accident. The more I read the article, the more it seemed to me that the author has a clear dislike for Nuance and Ricci. That is, of course, his prerogative, but as a journalist he should at least be up front about it and why it is so.

The article highlights the back and forth between Nuance/Ricci and Vlingo and it is, at times, a bit unpleasant to read. It notes that Ricci offered significant monetary incentives to Vlingo’s co-founders if they could persuade the Vlingo board to sell to Nuance and, if that did not happen, would pay them the same amount to come to Nuance. Hardball? Yes. Illegal? I don’t think so and you can bet Vlingo would have pursued it if there were grounds.

The article does appear to at least attempt a balanced approach at one point when it notes

Steve Tran, who co-founded BeVocal, a speech-recognition startup bought by Nuance in 2007, says he admires Ricci for his ability to understand the value of companies and his willingness to use all the tools at his disposal to obtain them at the right price. “Entrepreneurs can be a bit idealistic sometimes,” says Tran. “We want to change the world. But he wants to build an empire.”

But that comes rather late in the article. By then, many will have already formed an opinion about Nuance, or at least of Ricci.

Moreover, in the second to last paragraph it speaks of the increased pressure Nuance feels from Google, who are giving away their ever-more-accurate voice recognition technology. It notes, “Seven years after hiring former Nuance executive Mike Cohen, Google is giving away its speech-recognition technology to the same phone makers and cellular carriers that buy from Nuance.”

Strikingly, it says nothing of Google’s hardball tactics, and nothing about the hidden “price” of Google’s “free” services. None of this would be noteworthy except for the fact that the article is so critical of Nuance, while it lets Google go with a pass.

Here’s my point: There is no question in my mind that Nuance plays hardball. Ricci, whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting, sounds like a smart, tough, savvy businessman. He sounds like someone I would not want to go up against in business but would want on my side in any transaction be it big or small. Through the use of such word choices as “swooped in” (as in “he swooped in to buy the Belgium-based company for $39 million”), the article makes it sound like he is doing something insidious when in fact he is just doing business.

What I do know is this: Just a few years ago, voice recognition was barely passable; now it works extremely well. Just a bit more than a year ago, the only voice recognition you could get for a Mac that was worth anything was MacSpeech Dictate. It worked, but just barely. Nuance acquired the company, reworked the software, gave it their Dragon speech engine and created software that, for me, works magnificently. I say “for me”, because I have heard from others whose experiences are not quite as good.

I do know that Nuance currently gives high level voice-to-text recognition software to iOS users for free through Dragon Dictation. They don’t do it to be nice of course but because it builds their brand, helps sell other products and lets companies see how powerful and accurate their technology is. For the end user, however, it is completely free. (At least it is free for now.)

And I know that while Nuance collects data from users they do so in an entirely different way, and for entirely different reasons, than Google. For example, the Dragon Dictation app give you the OPTION to upload contact names in order to enhance proper name recognition with Dragon Dictation and no personal information about that contact is uploaded. (This option did not initially appear with the app and was quickly remedied.)  And when other Nuance products collect data they ONLY collect speech data so they can improve recognition and the data they collect is not attached to the user. It is completely unidentifiable. Can you say that for Google’s data collection? In other words, with Nuance you are not giving up your privacy to nearly the same degree.

And it all leaves me wondering, when did success and being a tough business strategist become a bad thing? Why is this article so very slanted? Why does it say so little about WHAT Nuance has achieved and already brought to market?

Do I have a bias here? Absolutely. Nuance has given folks like me some of the most important productivity tools we have. I HAVE a bias. And I’m upfront about that. The article’s author Peter Burrows seems to have a bias as well, but he is not nearly as up front. It makes me wonder why.

Apple wasn’t criticized anywhere near the degree that they are now until they became highly successful. Like Apple, Nuance is successful and has momentum that only promises to continue to increase. Are there places the two companies deserve criticism? Sure, but not to the degree the BusinessWeek article suggests. And here is the funny thing. Take out the company specifics and switch Nuance to Apple and Ricci to Jobs, and the article reads fairly well. Like Apple, Nuance works hard, deals hard, and innovates rapidly; if that’s is, in part, because of tough business practices, then so be it.

About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.
  • Susan Travis

    Just one point on the amazing innovation of Nuance. Voice recognition software requires “training”, and that requires human beings to correct the many mistakes made by even the Cadillac of VR software. Every time it’s corrected by a human, the software “learns” what that doctor is saying, so over time and repetitive corrections the VR drafts are adequate. When the humans working on hospital X have sufficiently trained the software to recognize all the doctors at hospital X, that account suddenly has no more work available to the humans that trained the software. Where does it go? Maybe to the thousands of transcriptions employed by Nuance in India. Good business sense; they work for less money, therefore increasing the bottom line. Now, for the humans who trained the software for hospital X, they’re assigned a new completely untrained account and the cycle repeats itself. They still have work and Nuance makes money for the employees and investors. Here’s the fly in the ointment; the humans that train the software in the United States are paid BY THE LINE. That’s right, 4 cents per line regardless of their years of experience, how long they’ve been with the company, college degrees, etc. So, whereas they may have worked their way up to $15 an hour after training hospital X software for many months, they are rewarded with a new account in a new city with new account specifics, new doctors and VR drafts that accurately recreates about 50% of what the doctor dictates, for which they might make minimum wage. Check the ratings for Nuance on Glassdoor.com or read some of the real-life experiences of their employees on MTStars.com before you pat them on the back for a job well done or start feeling sorry for them because they were beat up in an article. Words do matter, but they’re just words, and Nuance deserves so much worse than that for their years of abuse to the dedicated men and women who work very hard to create safe, accurate medico-legal documents when their fellow Americans have the misfortune of ending up in a hospital.