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June 11, 2024, 12:54 p.m.

Apple brings free call recording and transcription to iPhones; journalists rejoice

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.”

The word you’re looking for is “sherlocked.”

Back in November 2001, a Macintosh developer named Dan Wood released an app called Watson, meant to be a companion of sorts to Sherlock, a search tool Apple was then shipping with Macs. (Get it — Sherlock and Watson?) Watson let you do a variety of frequent web searches — checking the weather or a stock price, finding recipes, or digging around Amazon — without the need to open a web browser. It cost $29 and it was pretty popular. Apple even gave it one of its prestigious Apple Design Awards for “Most Innovative Mac OS X Application.”

Fast-forward to July 2002, when Apple did its annual reveal of the new updates to its operating system. Among them was a new version of Sherlock — which seemed to include all the features in Watson. In a single on-stage announcement, Apple had eliminated the market for Watson, Dan Wood’s livelihood. All manner of hue and cry followed, but Apple didn’t pay it much mind. Watson sales dried up, and it wasn’t long before Wood was selling its IP and shutting it down.

And thus Watson was the first app to be “sherlocked,” meaning “to obsolete a unique feature in third-party software by introducing a similar or identical feature to the OS or a first-party program/app.”

Of course, Apple back then was not the behemoth it is today. The 2002 version of Apple was worth about $4 billion and had a measly 3% of the PC market; 2024 Apple is worth about $3 trillion and, depending on the day, the most valuable company in the world. So any sherlocking happens on a much bigger scale.

At its World Wide Developer Conference yesterday, Apple unveiled hundreds of new features big and small, but one — a single sentence, dropped an hour and 36 minutes into the presentation — caught the attention of both journalists and developers afraid of being sherlocked.

Recordings, transcriptions, and Apple Intelligence-powered summaries are also coming to the Phone app.

That’s right: You’ll soon be able to use your iPhone to record interviews over the phone. And after you hang up, your phone will transcribe those recordings for you. This is a process that used to take up, conservatively, 172% of journalists’ time and even today requires third-party apps, most of which require a subscription.

Personally, I’ve used TapeACall for the recording part, and it’s never failed me — but two months ago, new owners hiked its annual subscription price from $19 to $79.1 For the transcription piece, I’ve used Otter ($100 a year for more than occasional use) and MacWhisper (free for basic use, €30 one-time purchase for higher quality, but slowish). But if Apple’s going to do the job for free…they’re gonna get sherlocked.2

Of course, Apple’s version might be subpar in various ways. It won’t be officially released until iOS 18 in September at earliest, and since it uses Apple Intelligence, whose release date is a bit fuzzier, it could be longer than that. (There’s a beta version of iOS 18 out, but the call recording feature apparently isn’t in it.) The transcription, at least, will likely be limited to only the most recent and powerful iPhones. Apple will also announce “this call is being recorded” to both parties — something that’s a legal requirement in some states but maybe an annoyance in others. And a footnote on Apple’s site notes a few language and geographic limitations:

Transcription will be available in English (U.S., UK, Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore), Spanish (U.S., Mexico, Spain), French (France), German (Germany), Japanese (Japan), Mandarin Chinese (China mainland, Taiwan), Cantonese (China mainland, Hong Kong), and Portuguese (Brazil).

Still, that didn’t stop journalists from celebrating the news.

Illustrated generated via Midjourney.

  1. The scale of the price increase varied; some, like me, had been grandfathered into a lower price, and some reported a $69 new price. []
  2. Android users are free to brag about how their devices could do this a long time ago, but Google banned most call-recording apps in 2022 and the ability to record is highly variable depending on your location and device maker. []
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     June 11, 2024, 12:54 p.m.
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