Sunday, June 3, 2007


Ive always wondered about our current keyboard layout.

For those not in the know, it goes like this.

How the characters on a keyboard are arranged is deliberately set out to cause typists to slow down (and probably as a minor sideeffect, more hand strain). Why was this done?

Simple. In the early days of the twentieth century, we didnt have electronic word processing. Ergo we made do with manual typewriters. Ask your folks about them if youve never seen one, or search google. Anyway as these machines were mechanical, the keys tended to stick to each other if the typist went too fast.

And so, they came up with the QWERTY keyboard (named after the first 6 letters on the keyboard). By deliberately making it harder to use the most often used keys, typists were forced to slow down. (Ever wonder why you have to lift your finger to press 'E' when it is the most used letter in the english language?)

This is all as it should be. A technical problem without a solution was solved. Problem is, when we left the days of manual typewriters behind us, we didnt automatically leave behind QWERTY keyboards. Inertia kept it as the standard. Books were in QWERTY, typists were trained in QWERTY etc etc.

Over and above this, I believe, the structure of the American economy has a lot to do with it. Unions and careers tend to be horizontally stratifed. By this, I mean secretaries are not loyal to one company and can job skip to another company like anyone else (unlike the Japanese system which was vertically stratified, the secretary would be beholden to a company union, not a secretary union for example).

No one company has any incentive to implement, pay for training, or train secretaries themselves as whatever training they give them may just end up benefitting someone else when the secretary leaves. But the fact remains that Dvorak layouts are faster.

Now, it IS possible to switch to DVORAK, even in Windows XP.. but it doesnt show up on the keyboard... so thats rather counter-intuitive.

A change is around the corner in this small area of life though. OLED Keyboards are here!. These dont have the characters imprinted on the buttons of the keyboard, but rather each button has a tiny display - so the visual keyboard layout can be switched in an instant (accomodating both QWERTY and DVORAK aficianados).

Think about what this means. Id say in a corporate office, at least 1 in every 4 people is a secretary. And these workers spend a third to half their time typing. Switching them to Dvorak would save the company a lot of money in labour costs over time. It has become a little more feasible for companies to invest in training their secretaries, or giving them a small bonus if they switch to DVORAK, so to speak.

Remember, for anyone NOT familiar with Dvorak, with OLED keyboards, the layout can be switched back to QWERTY with the press of a button - Bingo! Lowered transition costs!

Of course OLED keyboards are new-ish. They cost $1,500 a pop. But Id bet in 5 years or less, that price will drop to $150-200 and in 10 years.. probably $25-$75.

As for me? Im still aiming to become the fastest Two-finger typist in the world!

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