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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

5 Reasons to Abandon the Qwerty Keyboard

“Come quickly!” C. L. Sholes said to a fictitious fabrication invented for the purposes of this introductory dialogue, “I’ve finished my invention!”

“What is it?” he asked as Sholes dramatically pulled the cover from the machine.

“I call it the ‘type-writer’ and it will revolutionize communication.  Look, you can just push the button and ‘wham’, a letter appears on the paper,” he said, demonstrating with a quick peck.

“Wow… that is impressive.  Mind if I try it out?”

“By all means,” Sholes said proudly, pulling out the chair and winding a fresh page into the roller.

“Wait a second… why are the letters all out of order?”

A grim smile appeared on C. L. Sholes face; a knowing, conniving, mischievous grin.  He cupped his hands together and a light chuckle slowly built to a maniacal cackle, booming in the small room.  There was a hint of insanity echoing in the hollow laughter and his friend slowly backed away.  Just then a rat scurried along the margins of the room and Sholes attacked it, teeth first.  While his back was turned, his friend snuck away quietly and made for the nearest telephone to call the asylum.  But it was 1872 and the phone would not be invented for another four years.  By then, it would be too late and the qwerty keyboard would already be well on its way to becoming a universal standard.

But why?  Why do we continue to use this awkward arrangement of letters?  It is a system that lacks utility, guarantees error and, most importantly, makes not a single lick of sense.  The first models of Sholes ‘type-writer’ used alphabetical keys in two rows but this led to constant jamming.  The present arrangement was created under the mistaken belief that it would put the most used letters in easy reach while getting the less used letters out of the way.  But does it accomplish that?  Not in the slightest.

 #1) There is a semi-colon on the home row

My regular readers will already know that I have issues with the semi-colon.  It is a miserable hermaphrodite of a punctuation that lacks the fortitude to mean anything substantial.  It is a rarely used and misunderstood divisor and it is all but useless in all non-emoticon applications.

Using punctuation on the home row is stupid enough to begin with, but if you were going to do it, why use one of the least common marks?  Even a percent symbol or an ampersand would make more sense than a semi-colon.  But better yet, how about a period or comma?  Quotation mark?  Question mark?  Exclamation point?  Anything?

"Dude, we should totally put the semi-colon there..."

 #2) Only 4 of the 10 most common letters are on the home row

If you read along the middle row of keys it makes sense for a moment.  A… sure, that’s a pretty common letter.  You use it all the time.  Next we encounter S and that makes sense.  It is the most common consonant, after all.  Next is the D, again a very common letter.  And then it all goes horribly wrong.

F?  G?  J and K?  What were they thinking?  In the much more sensible “Dvorak” keyboard arrangement, there are ten letters on the home row and they are the ten most common letters.  70% of the typing you do uses the same 10 letters, which means that if they were all on the home row your fingers would only have to move away 30% of the time.  As it stands, your fingers move away from the home row on a whopping 68% of your keystrokes.

 #3) All the vowels are separated

As often as not, English follows a consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel rhythm.  This is not always the case, obviously.  There are plenty of double consonant sounds and more than enough diphthongs, but the majority of words spend the majority of their time alternating between the two types of letters.  This means that if all the vowels were placed on one side and the most common consonants on the other, a skilled typist could most often alternate from one hand to the other, which should radically improve the upper limit of typing speed.

As it stands, the most common letters in the alphabet (the vowels) are scattershot all over the place.  None of them are in easy reach from the home row.  The A is the only vowel you’ll find there and if you’re typing correctly, the only vowel you ever hit with your index or middle fingers if the I.  Sholes wouldn’t even give us the most common double vowels (ea and ou) next to each other… the jerk.

 #4) All the punctuation is hidden

With the exception of the aforementioned semi-colon, all of the punctuation is awkward to reach and the vast majority requires you to hold down the shift button.  The period and comma are the least awkward, but even they are tucked under home row, hiding below the K and the L.  The question mark, exclamation mark and quotation mark are all double touch strikes but the freaking HTML brackets are in easy reach with a single press.

Keep in mind that Sholes wasn’t online when he made up this arrangement.  At the time there were even fewer uses for the slash and the semi-colon did not separate multiple email recipients.  At that time the only punctuation most people would ever need was a few periods, some commas, the apostrophe, the exclamation mark, the question mark and an occasional quote.  6 keys could be devoted to that, one row on either side of the keyboard.  But that would be a little too easy, now wouldn’t it?

 #5) There is already a better alternative

I am not the first to notice this.  Inventor and Washington State University Professor August Dvorak tackled these problems back in 1932 when the qwerty arrangement was less than half as old as it is now.  He recognized the flaws and corrected them, inventing his own arrangement which he arrogantly called the “Dvorak” keyboard.  In his defense, if we tried to name it in the same manner as qwerty it would be called the ‘Pyfgcr’ arrangement.

In his keyboard, the semi-colon is relegated to a position fitting its superfluous nature.  All the vowels are on the left side of the home row and the five most common consonants are on the right side.  The apostrophe, comma and period take the place of the old Q, W and E and all of the home row keys are actual letters.  There are 400 common English words that can be typed without ever leaving the home row in Dvorak’s array.  Compare that with the mere 100 or so that Qwerty allows.

Don't stare too long or your other keyboard will get jealous.

I’d love to be able to quote the potential speed increase that Dvorak allows, but it is hard to say accurately.  There have been a number of tests that compare the two but they are all subject to the same basic flaws.  Generally, your test subjects would have had years of practice with Qwerty and no familiarity with Dvorak.  To develop a truly meaningful study you would have to find test subjects that had never typed before and teach them both keyboards together.

The first studies of the Dvorak did show it to be significantly faster.  The fact that August Dvorak was conducting the studies personally (after obtaining the patent) made the results a little tough to swallow outright.  Later studies showed much smaller differences though they did note that experienced typists could reach proficiency on the Dvorak very quickly.  Logic suggests that with repeated use there would be a small uptick in words-per-minute for the fastest of typists, but more importantly, there would be a much larger improvement for slower or newer typists.

It would take less than a generation to switch over, but we don’t do things like that.  It would’ve taken less than a generation to switch over to metric measurements but we gave up on that before we even tried.  We are more than willing to condemn our generations to continued inconvenience for the sake of saving ourselves a few months of confusion.

Perhaps someday we will come to our senses on this one but more likely we will not.  Even if a newer arrangement appears that dwarfs the advantage of Dvorak, we will probably ignore it and continue to let our pinkies float impotently over the semi-colon.  We will continue using the present system, consoling ourselves with the fact that despite its flaws it makes for an awesome Scrabble word.

The truest measure of a word's value.

Given that, I propose a less graceful solution to the whole problem.  If we aren’t willing to change the keyboard, perhaps we would be willing to change the alphabet.  After all, there is no reason why the A has to come first and the Z last, right?  Instead of teaching our kids the ABCs, we could teach them the QWEs.  In fact, if you leave in the semi-colon, the qwerty arrangement still fits into the same rhythm as the old alphabet song.  Go ahead… sing it and tell me I’m wrong.

If you’re thinking this seems like an awful lot of trouble without much advantage, consider the source.  I have more to lose from rearranging the alphabet than most as to do so would mean surrendering the alphabetical preeminence of my name.  For the sake of sanity and reason, it is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Aaron Davies


  1. ;) it's hard to wink without ;

  2. How about the uselessness of the interrobang