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Why do we still use QWERTY keyboards?

05 Sep

The Dvorak keyboard: the better way doesn’t always win out.

A while ago, I wrote a post on how current video game consoles were essentially broken technology. Up until a few short years ago, they were quite the opposite. Like cars, they were the perfect gadgets because all you had to do was insert a disc (or key, as it were) and off you went.

But over the past few years, manufacturers have heaped all sorts of new functionality into the machines without maintaining that elegance in the process. Now, it’s hard to go through the same simple act of playing a game without multiple logins and download updates. Today’s game consoles, while able to do so much more than their predecessors, have effectively stepped backward in the grand scheme of technological evolution, unlike cars, which have added functionality but stayed relatively simple.

Technology is supposed to make tasks easier. When it doesn’t, it’s anti-engineering, a term I recently picked up while finally reading Guns, Germs and Steel, the Pulitzer-prize winning book by Jared Diamond that seeks to explain why some countries are richer and more advanced than others.

Diamond doesn’t talk about video game consoles in his book, which was first published in 1997, but he does relate an amazing anecdote that most people have probably never considered (unless of course they’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel): the standard keyboard that we all type on may just be the worst designed piece of technology ever.

I had never really thought about how the QWERTY keyboard came to be laid out the way it is. Like many, though, I have wondered why all the common letters that we use are in hard to reach places and why they’re generally on the left when most people are right-handed.

It turns out that when the current keyboard layout was designed in 1873, it was intended to make people type slower. From the book:

The typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvements in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 per cent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves toward keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.

That new keyboard, invented by educator August Dvorak, is actually available to anyone who wants to use it. Both Macs and Windows computers can be switched to the so-called Dvorak keyboard (pictured above) as can many mobile devices, although most will only accommodate external keyboards. The keyboard itself can be purchased in various ways – otherwise you’d have to paint over your existing QWERTY keys.

The moral of the story is, whether it’s game consoles or keyboards, there’s always a better way. Unfortunately, there are usually reasons why those better ways aren’t adopted.

It’s amazing to think that typing – especially on those danged small smartphone keyboards – could be immensely easier if there was a large-scale movement for change. Just think of the productivity gains.

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2 Comments

Posted by on September 5, 2012 in computers, video games

 

2 responses to “Why do we still use QWERTY keyboards?

  1. Jason Rhinelander

    September 5, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Unfortunately, Diamond didn’t research the issue very well, and you are perpetuating a commonly-held myth. The thing is, it’s a good story, and so we want to use it as an example of how network effects hold back technological progress. The only problem is that it simply isn’t true! A quick skim of Wikipedia yields: “A popular myth is that QWERTY was designed to “slow down” typists though this is incorrect – it was designed to prevent jams[4] while typing at speed, allowing typists to type faster.[5]”. That [5] reference points to http://home.earthlink.net/~dcrehr/whyqwert.html which has a better explanation of the shady evidence of Dvorak’s technological superiority:

    “The Dvorak keyboard sounds very good. However, a keyboard need to do more than just “sound” good, and unfortunately, Dvorak has failed to prove itself superior to QWERTY. It appears that many of the studies used to test the effectiveness of Dvorak were flawed. Many were conducted by the good professor himself, creating a conflict of interest question, since he had a financial interest in the venture. A U.S. General Services Administration study of 1953 appears to have been more objective. It found that it really didn’t matter what keyboard you used. Good typists type fast, bad typists don’t.”

    There’s an informative academic paper written by economists on the topic (available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/725509), showing how the commonly-believed history behind the QWERTY layout disagrees with the actual history.

    It’s not that QWERTY is better, it’s just that, in reality, the differences in speed weren’t that significant. Still, it’s a nice story that intuitively explains lock-in of inferior technology. In the case of keyboard layouts, however, it just isn’t true.

     
    • petenowak2000

      September 5, 2012 at 12:53 pm

      Thanks for the info on the disputed results, Jason, I wasn’t aware of the controversy. As someone who had a hell of a time learning how to type in high school, though, I can certainly vouch for the need to develop a better way.

       
 
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