19 March 2010

Keyboard Layouts

As you may know, type-writers originally had more or less alphabetic key ordering. Typing was a mechanical process -- essentially pressing a key caused block letter to smack the paper, printing that letter. It was soon discovered that certain very common letter combinations (e.g. ST) would physically cause the machine to jam.

The QWERTY keyboard layout was devised by Christopher Sholes to minimize jamming. The commercial success of his typewriter in 1898, featuring the QWERTY layout, led many manufacturers to adopt it. Over time, it became the standard layout for keyboards, and it has changed only slightly since then. By and by computers came along, and the QWERTY layout has come to include some things specifically for the computer -- function keys, arrow keys, etc.

So a professor named Dvorak decides to investigate efficient text entry methods. After a bit of research on hand physiology and letter / diagraph frequencies, he came up with a keyboard layout specifically designed to minimize finger travel. It was patented in 1936 and is commonly known as the Dvorak keyboard. The layout, being an ANSI standard, is available but hidden away on most modern operating systems. The layout, once learned, promises faster data entry and reduced risk of CTS / RSI over the QWERTY layout. Of particular note is that 70% of English words can be typed using just the ten keys on the home row of the Dvorak keyboard.

However, the Dvorak keyboard never saw widespread acceptance. There are many cited reasons for this. Of particular note was the fact that workers would need retraining, and new equipment would have to be purchased (before the computer age). On top of that, you might recall that the 30s was a particularly bad time for the world economy. Even today, few studies on QWERTY vs. Dvorak exist, therefore it is difficult to empirically justify a switch from the established standard.

Part of the purpose of this entry was to explore the Dvorak keyboard, and in fact I wrote all of the above with a Dvorak-based layout, before editing. (I can see why people are reticent to switch... it is very frustrating to relearn to type!) However, I can't help but wonder if, after the training obstacle is overcome, if it won't be better, easier, less strain, maybe even faster. Perhaps I'll give it a try.

Regardless of what I do, I doubt that Dvorak will ever become the standard, even if it was one day empirically found to be superior. Learning to type is no small task (something you take for granted until you have to relearn it). The established labor pool has a QWERTY mindset. Heck even the staggered rows that modern keyboards have are owed to the "ancient" typewriter. It had to stagger them so that all the keys could mechanically connect to every corresponding letter block. Typing is such a fundamental function of computer use today, and QWERTY is so entrenched, that probably the only thing that will change it is to make the keyboard obsolete as a data entry method.

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