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Monday, April 9, 2012

Phase Out QWERTY Keyboards Already!

The letters QWERTY reference the upper left row of keys on what is the current standard keyboard layout.  (it's ok, go ahead and look if you have to) 

What we've known all our lives is NOT an ideal layout.  In fact, a superior layout has been around since 1936.

The very first layout (by Sholes, who also created QWERTY) was essentially alphabetical, with very little thought involved. 

QWERTY was invented in the 1870's in order to mitigate typewriter jams.  The QWERTY design achieved this by separating  "commonly used letter-pairs (like "th" or "st") so that their typebars were not neighboring, avoiding jams."

Enter stage left: an alternate layout, designed with both statistics of the English language and optimization of finger movement taken into account.
This is the Dvorak layout, for some reason still sitting "on deck."  Its strange name comes from its inventor, Dr. August Dvorak

Teaching new generations to use an alternative layout can cause no harm.  Unlike the idea of "Esperanto" ("an easy-to-learn and politically neutral language that transcends nationality") Dvorak can't hinder communication between young and old.  Any typed message is identical on-screen despite the interface.  Why haven't we changed?  The only reason I can imagine that could be complicating things is the lack of keyboards with the alternate layout PRINTED on its keys.  As we all remember, early on, sight is very much required.

Touch typing is typing without using the sense of sight to find the keys. Specifically, a touch typist will know their location on the keyboard through muscle memory.   If you're good enough at this, switching layouts is hardly worth the effort.  That's why it makes sense for kids to start out on the optimized Dvorak layout now.

The interesting problem of "awkward strokes" is a good enough example to persuade. 

"Awkward strokes are undesirable because they slow down typing, increase typing errors, and increase finger strain. Hurdling is an awkward stroke requiring a single finger to jump directly from one row, over the home row to another row (e.g., typing "minimum" (which often comes out as "minimun" or "mimimum") on the QWERTY keyboard). In the English language, there are about 1,200 words that require a hurdle on the QWERTY layout. In contrast, there are few words requiring a hurdle on the Dvorak layout and even fewer requiring a double hurdle."

Occasionally I'll amaze myself by realizing that a word I just typed was all on one hand.  It seems to be one of those things that's funny; but I can't place why...  For the same reason, after reading the paragraph above and now typing the word "minimum," I laugh.  Go figure.  Maybe it's my nerdiness.

Want to convert?
For those who want to throw caution to the wind and convert, despite having proficiency with QWERTY, there does exist a "training wheels" layout for Dvorak called Colemak.  Similar to QWERTY, this helps you ease your way into full on Dvorak by meeting half way.

Dvorak, although far behind, is still 2nd place, and easily enough toggled in virtually any OS.  (via Control Panel > Keyboard & Mouse on Windows.)  Depending on your OS, Colemak might require some fiddling around.

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