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The story of keyboard layouts (QWERTY vs Dvorak)

May 15, 2012 -- Willynux
Last modified on August 2016

The story of keyboard layouts is often used as an example to illustrate the predominance of historical events over reasonable judgement. It involves a lot of factors like the importance of being the first, the usual resistance to change, network effects and the relationship between initial investment and long term return. We will see in the next paragraphs that it's rather easy to understand why we use today the standard “QWERTY” layout and how the same mechanisms applies to all sorts of things in our lives.

The first text keyboards

The first keyboard layouts were rather straight forward: letters were arranged in alphabetical order and put in one single line. They were certainly influenced by an even earlier keyboard: the piano. Since keyboard instruments had a long history of changes and optimizations behind them, it must have seemed obvious, at first, that this was a smart layout choice. Musicians must have made it look like perfection was just a matter of practise but the piano keyboard was really not the best choice for text input. In any case, nobody typed text at that time. The use of keyboards to type text was not so widespread until the popularisation of typewriters.

Piano text keyboard by Peter Van Lancker

The typewriter revolution

Typewriters were invented in 1868 and the standard QWERTY layout appeared soon after, in 1874, on the Shoes & Glidden typewriters. It became, since then, the de facto international standard, knowing only slight local variations in some countries. The idea behind QWERTY was to improve writing speed compared to the alphabetical keyboard by reducing the common problems related to the specific design of these machines. The optimizations took into account that the upper rows were considered to be easier to reach than the ones below (since the top rows were higher) and that, if letters were pressed too fast one after the other (or simultaneously), the typewriter would jam. As a result, letters were arranged in such a way that the most frequently used letters and combinations were kept scattered on the upper row. An additional feature that is often attributed to this layout is the ability to write the word “typewriter” using only the upper row of the QWERTY layout, allegedly for salesman demonstration purposes.

By slowing down the typist a little bit with an awkward combination of letters, the new layout avoided annoying jams on the machine, helped salesman to quickly write “typewriter” as an example to their customers and introduced the notion of layout optimisation. It was a big design success. So much so that it is still today the indisputable standard. We can assume that QWERTY was a variation of the alphabetical layout, particularly if we observe the vestiges left on the middle row: the letters D, (E on the upper row), F, G, H, (I on the upper row), J, K and L are placed (almost) in sequence. Note how only combinations that are uncommon enough are left untouched from the alphabetical keyboard.

qwerty layout from wikimedia

The digital revolution

With the transition from mechanical typewriters to electronic keyboards, the rules of the game have completely changed. We no longer have jamming problems nor the urge to type “typewriter” that much often. Our keyboard layouts did not change much though and this is the really interesting part of this story. Why the layout remained the same? The reasons are human and social rather than technological. Actually, the question that most people asked (if they ever did) was exactly the opposite: why should we change something that is already established and working?

Dvorak keyboard layout

Some people addressed this issue, and by the way, much before the popularisation of computers. August Dvorak and William Dealey designed in 1936 a different layout taking into account the 68 years of experience with QWERTY keyboards. At this time the first electronic devices were just about to become a reality. Their focus was to put the most frequently used keys in the middle row to reduce “finger travel” and alternate consonants and vowels on the right and on the left to reach optimum use of both hands. Some common punctuation like comma and full stop also gained a prominent place in their layout, near the number keys. Today, most computers support the “Dvorak” layout and it is said to be the second most popular layout. Despite these remarkable achievements, it remains unknown and obscure to the great majority of us.

dvorak layout from wikimedia

(The red dot intensity show the usage frequency in the English language, the numbers indicate the position among the most used, 1 being the most used letter)

What else?

Now, how does this relate to other things in our lives? Well, there are numerous examples, QWERTY vs. Dvorak is just a typical example of stable standards vs. optimised alternatives. The adoption of GNU/Linux vs. their proprietary equivalents (or the other way around if you prefer), also follow the same patterns. Mac OS and Windows came first, the majority of people use them and it's not so easy to switch from one operating system to another. Although GNU/Linux is free (free of charge and free of rights), has no virus and is much more flexible and feature rich, there is no evidence that GNU/Linux desktops will prevail in the near future.

On the next page I'll talk about my own experience with both layouts and my little diary (short version).

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