Technology and the Point of No Return

When something already has mass adoption, often it’s best to not let perfect be the enemy of good.

October 5, 2015

At this moment I am writing using the QWERTY layout on my keyboard. My laptop has provided me with convenient white curves on each key to help me remember where I am and to help locate a character if I forget where it is.

Almost every modern computer uses some variation of the QWERTY keyboard. The UK International keyboard, for example, is a variant of QWERTY that uses an additional key that functions like a shift key to support accents and other regional characters. QWERTY is even used in China, where Roman letters are used to input a Pinyin (phonetic) representation of a character or the root shapes of a character. While languages can be very different, the keyboard layout generally remains constant.

The QWERTY keyboard was designed to address a technological problem which no longer exists in a technology that is now only rarely used. Early commercial typewriters were plagued by mechanical problems that would make them jam when neighboring letters were pressed at the same time. American inventor and printer Christopher Latham Sholes is credited with creating the modern keyboard layout in addition to the first practical typewriter. Despite popular myth, Sholes’ keyboard layout was not designed to slow the machine down; it was only optimized to prevent jams.

The QWERTY keyboard was the first successful layout and has since become the only successful layout. Of course, there were others. In 1939, Dr. August Dvorak and Dr. William Dealey released the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, which was designed to have the most commonly used keys on the “home row”. Believing that typing speeds could be increased by alternating hands, Dvorak placed vowels in the left hand’s home row. To reduce strain, common bigrams (two letter combinations) were placed where they were easiest to type using the strongest fingers.

While designed in a much more scientific manner, the Dvorak layout had mixed results in tests at the time and was never widely adopted. Though every major operating system supports it, Dvorak is still rarely used.

This begs the question: if it was designed to be better and more efficient, why was the Dvorak Keyboard Layout never adopted?

To find out, I learned the Dvorak layout earlier this year. I do not own a typewriter, so all I had to do the change layouts was to modify the settings on my computer and my phone. It took a lot of thinking at first, but as I started to become half-proficient after working diligently through a repertoire of practice words (interestingly enough, repertoire is one of only five ten-letter words in the English language that can be typed using only the top row of keys in the QWERTY layout), I started to understand some of the challenges facing people learning new keyboard layouts.

I have years of experience with QWERTY. I can type rather quickly with QWERTY and my workflow with QWERTY is a familiar one. Changing keyboard layouts meant changing just about every part of how I used a computer. Without special configuration, my helpful trio — cut, copy, and paste — were no longer close to each other. It is not until you switch from QWERTY that you realize how much every part of the computer was built around its use.

Even if you know Dvorak or some other layout, you would still need to learn QWERTY if you want to work with other people; it is not practical to expect other people to change layouts whenever you use their systems and most manufacturers are not going to spend the extra money to create label keyboards with rarely used layouts.

When it comes to keyboards, it seems that the technology has reached a point of no return. A layout designed for a separate technology, the typewriter, is now the dominant layout on a new technology, the computer. Even if new computer layouts are developed, it is unlikely that they will become adopted, further supporting the monopoly enjoyed by QWERTY. As with any standard, QWERTY is arguably not the best option, but it is still the only option.