January 31, 2011

Warning: Wikipedia rehash alert: the following post relies heavily on this article.

The QWERTY keyboard was invented in 1873 by Christopher Latham Sholes for his typewriter, which subsequently sold to Remington. Sholes developed the layout into a similar design as is common today, through a series of renditions that were aided by an acquaintance’s work on letter-pair frequencies. Though other alternatives were available, Sholes found that to avoid physical clashes in the works of the machine, he could space the commonly used letters far apart. Further, he spaced the rows of keys so one was not directly over another for the same reason. Remington made QWERTY popular with the commercial success of their Remington 2 (the first typewriter with a shift key) sold first in 1878. Typists quickly became so familiar with the layout that competitors had to follow suit to sell their product.

Today, 137 years after its introduction, I am typing this blog post on an iPhone’s QWERTY keyboard, complete with the upper row staggered from the middle. Even though I am using two thumbs to type, I find it comfortable and natural to find the keys in their “proper” positions.

For many years I have gone through Dvorak phases, where I’ll attempt to┬áteach myself to use the keyboard invented by Dr. August Dvorak. The Dvorak layout has led to new speed typing records, lower cases of repetitive stress syndrome and carpal tunnel, and in some circles, no doubt, a cure for cancer. With a Dvorak keyboard, 70% of the keystrokes used in typing (such as vowels) are kept within the home row, or that row that your fingers rest on naturally. With the QWERTY, it drops to 32%. Further, far fewer words are typed with only one hand on the Dvorak, which increases normal typing speed. So why don’t we all use Dvorak?

A personal note–I’ve never broken 17 words per minute on the Dvorak, which even my 80-year-old grandma would be ashamed of. The finger-moving part of my brain doesn’t like it when I try to keep my fingers on the home row for so much of the time. And the rational, logical (and some say greedy) part of my brain tells me to learn it in the alleged “spare time” that some claim to have, and to just get on with my work.

But the fact that a bad system is implicitly accepted by all the keyboard manufacturers, operating system developers, and elementary school typing teachers makes me take pause. Even though as far back as 1873 there existed other ways to type, still the QWERTY has persevered.

Successful systems and standards follow a normal life cycle: introduction, acceptance, dependency, stagnation, and replacement. Due to a host of human factors, a system as seemingly simple as a keyboard to a system as complex as a space shuttle seem to follow these steps. In the case of QWERTY, the network effect (the exponential reinforcement of ever larger groups of people) made users dependent on the standard early on. Since then, the same network effect has held even relatively innovative companies hostage–witnessed by the loud debate not on the layout of the keys, but whether the familiar layout is better as a soft keyboard or a tactile one.

We have long since entered the stagnation phase of our keyboards. And we are just now entering the long and drawn out replacement phase, driven by dedicated individuals and new technology.

What systems do you find yourself dependent to? Why? When, do you suppose, is it better to ignore the others and make your own standards? When is “good enough” holding you back?

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