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Apple Safari builds speech recognition into the web with MacOS 11.3

Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge already can turn your words into text.

Safari Technology Preview icon
Illustration by Stephen Shanlkland/CNET

Apple has added support for speech recognition technology into a version of its Safari web browser the company is testing with the release of MacOS 11.3 Big Sur for developers. The speech recognition interface lets websites and web apps listen to spoken words and use the resulting text.

Apple released the developer beta version of MacOS 11.3 on Tuesday. The speech recognition interface is still experimental, but browsers including Google's Chrome and Microsoft's Edge support it. It's the kind of technology useful for tasks like dictating messages into a chat app or online word processor.

Speech recognition is one of the triumphs of modern neural network technology, which processes data in a way inspired by the human brain. Neural networks are trained on real-world data -- in this case countless hours of spoken words -- until an artificial intelligence model can reliably turn speech into text. Related AI technology can turn text into speech.

Together, it's profoundly transformed how we use smartphones, made technology more accessible to people with vision problems, opened up an entirely new market for smart speakers, and surmounted some language barriers.

Another change in the upcoming version of Safari is an ability to let extensions programmers control the new tab page -- the screen you see when you open a blank new tab. That should bring Safari a step closer to Chrome, which dominates usage of the web today. Safari is embracing Chrome's style of extensions programming with Big Sur, a move that should make life easier for extension developers and for Safari users who need those extensions.

The new Safari version also lets you customize the new tab page by rearranging what the browser shows there -- frequently visited websites, Siri suggestions, browser tabs from Safari running on other devices, and Apple's privacy report.

If you want a taste of what's to come with Safari, you can try the Safari Technology Preview designed to help developers test new versions of the browser with their websites.