With the proliferation of keyboardless and mouseless devices such as tablets and smartphones, one has to wonder why so many millions of people who communicate by text must still use the outdated and counter-intuitive keyboard system known as QWERTY.
Named after the first six letters on the first row of characters, few people are aware of the reason for this layout. Many assume it must the most ergonomically effective combination of keys for typing in English, however the opposite is actually true. The design actually comes from the early days of typewriters, when each letter was mounted on its own stalk, and the pressing of the appropriate letter key pushed the stalk up against an inked ribbon and then against the paper itself. It’s hard to imagine how anything actually got done that way in the days before spellcheck and copy-and-paste.
Urban legend has it that the QWERTY layout was designed so that typewriter salesmen of the 1940s and 1950s could demonstrate their product by typing the word “typewriter” even though they themselves were not great typists. The letters in the word “typewriter” all appear on the top row, making it easy to demonstrate with one finger.
The real reason for the layout is that since professional typists were very fast, they would often jam many of the individual letter stalks together, thus damaging the typewriter. The QWERTY layout was implemented to ensure that the most commonly-used letters were pressed by the typists’ weakest fingers, therefore reducing jams.
But the new generation of productivity devices frees us from the mechanical restraints of a fixed keyboard system, and begs the question as to whether a new standard could emerge. Alternate keyboards, such as Dvorak, and one-handed mechanical boards have been experimented with over the decades, but never has the world had such a liquid and malleable work surface as can now be found on our tablets.
Recently my team and I tried out a handful of text-entry alternatives to try and get a glimpse as to what the future might hold in terms of acceptance and implementation.
The first of these was ASETNIOP, which represents a new approach to “chorded keystrokes.” In the same manner that keys played together on a piano form a chord, the ASETNIOP approach provides an eight-letter virtual onscreen keyboard (the letters that form its name: A, S, E, etc.) from which combinations of these keys, for example pressing the third and fourth together, will create another letter. ASETNIOP overlays the browser screen, allowing you to type directly on top of whatever you are looking at without losing half of the screen space to the keyboard. The developers claim that a person can achieve a speed of 60 wpm after 15 hours of training. Its intelligent autocorrect feature adds an additional layer of practicality to this.
Secondly we looked at FrogPad, a one-handed keyboard in which certain letters are visible and others are access by pressing a Shift-type key which reveals a secondary set of letters.
Thirdly we looked at GKOS, an intriguing collection of primary and secondary keys that cling to either side of the screen and are designed with smartphone screens in mind. GKOS is a thumb-only approach to text editing.
We found all three relatively easy to learn, given that mastery of them requires just an exercise in memorization combined with muscle-memory. However the question remains whether the world is either ready or willing to retrain itself. The cost of retraining, it is said, would make a conversion prohibitive.
I however, question that.
A snapshot of any place where people gather shows that the acceptance of the smartphone is almost total. People have trained themselves how to use a smartphone, how to enter URLs into a web browser, how to copy and paste links and how to transfer photos to the cloud. It is easy when there is an end benefit.
So what would it take to have people want to change the way they enter text? Increased speed? Greater accuracy? Physical comfort in holding a device and typing?
The proliferation of alternative keyboards is another excellent example of evolution at work. New and better methods of communicating are coming forward, like new variations of plants in a meadow. The most attractive and ideal will find early adopters, who will in turn spread the “seed” of this innovation, while simultaneously demanding improvements and efficiencies through the beauty of an open market.
My expectation is that within seven years, people will look back upon the QUERTY keyboard with the same nostalgia (or perplexed expression) that they currently hold for the horse-and-cart or pocket watch.
Change cannot be mandated. It happens of its own accord, and does so despite the resistance of many who wish to hold on to the status quo.
(As a quick footnote and a nod to the world of rock ‘n’ roll, it was Bette Nesmith Graham, the mother of Mike Nesmith, lead singer of the 1960’s pop band The Monkees, who actually patented the product known as White-Out or Liquid Paper, which many of us used religiously as we crafted our prose one letter at a time, and made many typos along the way. Even as she was developing this product, her innovation was admonished by management as “improper.”)