Friday, January 13, 2012

Death to QWERTY

Ever wonder why your keyboard is laid out in such a strange pattern? The letters seem to be randomly arranged, and the rows are placed at strange, off-center intervals instead of being on a neat grid. Even a cell phone’s virtual keyboard has rows that aren’t always arranged neatly. Well, there’s a good terrible reason for that.

How QWERTY Became King

Remington No. 2
Most likely, you’re using a QWERTY keyboard. You’ll know if you look in the top-left corner of your keyboard and see that the first six keys spell out this strange word. The layout has been around since 1878 when Remington released their groundbreaking No. 2 typewriter—which was also the first device of its kind to allow the use of both upper- and lower-case letters.

At this point, QWERTY was the natural evolution of eleven years of typewriter development. The earliest machines used the logical approach of arranging the keys in alphabetical order; unfortunately, many keys that are used in succession were placed next to each other. You may be asking yourself “Why is this a problem?” The answer is something that anyone born after 1980 has never experienced: typebar jams.

Jammed typebars
Back then, being an era in which horses still provided the main means of transportation, each key was connected to a long bar with a reverse cast of the letter being depressed on the end of it. When two keys immediately next to each were depressed at the same time or repeatedly in succession, the arms could get tangled up in each other. Since each key is firing its arm at the same spot on the page, collisions were inevitable. It was a fact of life in the typewriter era, and the only way to reduce jams was to move commonly used pairs of letters apart on the keyboard.

So we ended up with QWERTY, in which common pairs of letters are somewhat spaced out, and very little of the natural alphabet exists (except for DFGHJKL on the home row—a whole string of the alphabet, sans vowels).

These type arms are also the culprit behind the staggered arrangement of the keyboard’s rows. In a grid, type arms would have to go above or below each other. By shifting the rows slightly to one side, type arms could move past the upper rows easily.

The Dvorak Layout

Eleven years is not a particularly long time to perfect a technology—especially not during the heart of the Industrial Revolution. It was inevitable that someone would develop a new keyboard arrangement that made more sense. August Dvorak rearranged the keys in 1936 to create a more simplified keyboard that aimed to put commonly used letters together again. Improved technology ensured that jams were less frequent, so splitting up common letter pairs wasn’t as much of a concern; typing fast and accurately while reducing repetitive strain injuries was the main focus.

Dvorak’s layout allowed a typist to alternate hands and fingers more often, put typical combinations close together, and placed the most common letters in the home row, right in the middle of the keyboard. It was an all-around more efficient layout—when typing in English.

This new layout still used staggered rows, however, to accommodate the typebars.

So why do we still use QWERTY?

A whole mess of reasons have blocked Dvorak’s layout—and any other attempt—from acceptance. When it was revealed, the country was deep into the Great Depression, and few manufacturers wanted to invest in a new standard and change their designs and parts casting. Since no one else cared, no one ever learned about it. Dvorak remained largely anonymous for half a century.

Then in 1985, Barbara Blackburn set a world record by typing an amazing 212 words per minute on a Dvorak keyboard. For a brief moment, the world was intrigued by this unheard-of keyboard layout. It seemed to be the way of the future.

Unfortunately, support fizzled out. Everyone was too used to the QWERTY keyboard and the muscle memories they’d developed over a lifetime of typing on it to take the time to learn a new layout, which brings us to the current state of keyboards.

In America, we tend to adhere to many illogical standards based on antiquity. We measure long distances in miles, miles in feet (5,280 of them), and feet in inches (12 per). These seemingly random numbers contrast starkly with the meter (100 of which equal a kilometer, and they split neatly into 100 millimeters). We don’t make the switch because we’re too conditioned to the system we’re already using. The same can be said about gallons and liters.

But why the staggered rows? Again, it’s the muscle memories responsible for this. Because we are encouraged to learn to type without looking at the keyboard, the keys need to be in precise locations. If we pushed the keys into a neat grid, it would screw up typists everywhere. They’d be hitting the edges of keys, hitting the wrong keys, probably hitting the person sitting next to them out of frustration.

By the time computers overtook the typewriter market, just about everyone in the world was typing, and doing so with QWERTY. Blackburn’s publicity could have been a big push for the more efficient Dvorak layout, but the opportunity was missed.

Software standards began to be developed with QWERTY in mind. Many program shortcuts use the Alt, Cmd, or Ctrl keys paired with a letter in the lower left corner of this layout. (Ctrl+Z, +X, +C, and +V perform the main clipboard functions in nearly every Windows program.) Changing to a different layout would require a major upset in software standards just as much as it would require everyone in the world to re-learn to type. It’d be very much like everyone learning to write with the opposite hand.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice. You can absolutely buy a Dvorak keyboard, and many operating systems allow key mapping that rearranges inputs to adhere to this layout. Virtual keyboards can do whatever they want, so a quick app install on your mobile phone can provide a new layout in minutes.

But hey, those virtual keyboards: Are they even necessary anymore? Since it’s impossible to type with all your fingers on a tiny screen, and a bit of a chore on a tablet, couldn’t we re-imagine text input altogether?

That’s exactly what Snapkeys aims to do. By using a unique layout that fits into four different invisible panels, users can actually input text faster than using a keyboard—and do it with just two thumbs.

If we ditch QWERTY, we’ll be doing ourselves a favor, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Eventually, we’ll need to start doing what’s logical, instead of simply accepting outdated standards.

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