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Apple to shift to voice interface for iPods, iPhones?

Apple's marketing slogan for the new Shuffle is "Small Talk," touting its voice-over feature. But lost in small talk about the device may be a larger user interface shift.

I recently trashed the third-generation Shuffle in a blog post, saying it was "a disaster."

Well, I meant it. A buttonless, tiny, entry-level MP3 with special "VoiceOver" features just seems so unnecessary. But then a reader made an interesting point to me. What if the lead got buried in Apple's Shuffle announcement?

Is Apple's small talk really a precursor to big interface changes across its entire line? Apple

While everyone was harping about how the thing's really small (I say too small), requires an adapter for you to use your own headphones, and has a voice-over feature that doesn't seem to really add much (we know what our favorite songs are, right?), the real story may be that Apple's getting ready to launch all this voice stuff across its whole line of mobile products.

The reader, Charles, who e-mailed me, asks this question: "Would you have thought to design in 'voice report,' plus device-decentralized 'hard controls,' into an $80 music-player appliance?"

No. So, why do you do it?

"Well," he goes on, "if you were testing consumer acceptance of a new product'd probably do well not just to tweak, but educate, your adopter audience on the sensory essentials of your new interface. Technology is best delivered in metered morsels to be digested."

I agree--and I suspect this voice-over introduction is part of a companywide shift for Apple into the voice arena and a new user interface mode. But think in these terms: instead of it being a one-way street from machine to man (or woman), the more advanced version will go both ways. You'll be able to talk to your device--whether an iPod Classic, iPod Touch, iPhone, or even the rumored Apple Netbook, a device that allegedly has a touch screen and perhaps minimal hard controls--and it will talk back to you. Of course, many mobile phones have voice recognition features today, but Apple's version--for better or worse--will take voice control to a whole new level.

Charles notes that Apple usually has pretty good reasons for its design decisions and that Steve Jobs said early on that iPods were about "navigating content." So while this first implementation may look a little contrived and gimmicky, if Apple can really pull off a user interface paradigm shift, we may really want to buy an overpriced adapter and a whole new set of voice-over-compatible headphones to take advantage of this fantastic new interface.

Apple's feature Apple

We're still a ways away from being able to talk to our computers like Dave talks to HAL in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." But as I sit here writing this column, feeling the carpal tunnel creeping into the hands and wrists, I'd welcome the idea of turning to my Mac and saying, "Dude (yes, my computer's name is Dude), here are few scattered thoughts. Please write a column."

That would be nice. But in the short term, we'll get to see what Apple's rolling out at its iPhone 3.0 software event on March 17. I'm betting we're going to be hearing a lot more about VoiceOver. And we're going to be hearing a lot more about VoiceOver-compatible accessories that have built-in mics that enable you to record notes, navigate content with your voice, and maybe even dictate e-mails instead of typing them.

Of course, I could be wrong. And even if I am right, I'm not sure that a shift to a voice-based user interface mode will turn out well--or that it's the right way to go. But I'm all ears as I sit here wondering whether Apple's "Small Talk" headline will become "Big Talk" in the days to come.

What do you guys think?