Sunday, October 26, 2014

Open source stenography!

Open source stenography!  Way back in the distant past, in 1981 (before most of my readers were born), I worked for a funny little company named Xscribe.  It was a great job for me, my first real job in a technology company, and it was a terrific learning experience on many levels – learning both how things should be done, and how they should not be done :)

The company's products were automation tools for court stenographers, and at the time they were revolutionary.  Most stenographers still worked with old-fashioned mechanical machines and did their editing and typing of transcripts by hand, on a typewriter or primitive dedicated word processor.  With Xscribe's products, their familiar stenographic machine was connected directly to a computer, they could create codes on the fly (an enormous time-saver), they edited on a CRT, and the printed the final transcript directly to a computer printer – near-magical levels of automation by the day's standards.

Xscribe made the classic mistake of insisting on closed, proprietary, and grossly non-standard hardware.  They were killed off by the advent of PC-based competition.  I lost track of the industry after that.  But this morning I came across the video above, by one of the founders of a free, open source stenographic software package called Plover – and references to open source stenographic input hardware as well.  The stenographers were tired of being plundered by overpriced vendors, and they're fighting back.  I've no idea what their success will be, but I'm fascinated that open source solutions are attacking niche markets like this.  It makes sense, though, because the market is too small for large economies of scale, too small to attract lots of competitors (which would drive the prices down), yet big enough that a collaborative effort might just work.  I suspect there are quite a few markets like that...

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