By Brian | September 29, 2009 | Share on Facebook
Speculist has an item up that once again bemoans the inferior QWERTY keyboard that persists over the superior Dvorak keyboard, despite its roots as a mechanical speed bump to prevent fast typists from jamming early typewriters. Speculist examines this age-old issue, as you might imagine, from a new perspective – that of the sticking power of well-established standards in the face of newer, better alternatives. They provide examples of other “QWERTYies” in our world – the English measuring system, the “office at work” in a work-at-home world, and others. Pretty interesting stuff…
A commenter took it one step further: a lot of our newer keyboards are not physical devices, but virtual keyboards appearing on a touch screen device (iPhone, Palm Pre, etc.). Surely, it would be easier to swap between QWERTY and Dvorak on those devices, right? All of the problems surrounding the conversion of physical keyboards melt away – you don’t need multiple keyboard drivers, you don’t have to worry about relabeling (or dual-labeling) the physical keys, multiple users of the device can change the setting back without having to know what it’s currently set to, and so on.
But then I got to thinking: touch-screen, “virtual” keyboards can do even better. They can let the users customize their own keyboard layouts. Perhaps you learned to type on a QWERTY keyboard, but your last name contains a “Z,” and it’s always bugged you that this frequently typed key was stuck on the weak, pinkie finger of your left hand. What’s to prevent you from starting with a QWERTY layout, and then swapping the “Z” key with, let’s say, the “J” or the “M” key? Or maybe you’re a writer/blogger/twitterer who writes a lot about UNIX. You could swap the home-row keys on your dominant hand from “JKL;” to “UNIX” (finding new homes for the the J, K, L, and semi-colon keys, of course). Any combination should be equally easy for the device – after all, they must have a graphics map built somewhere already that tells them what spot(s) on the touchscreen correspond to each letter. So all they’d have to do is update that map!
The downside, of course, would be that your customized keyboard wouldn’t be (automatically) available on other devices. For something as ubiquitous as an iPhone, that could be solved by allowing users to e-mail their keyboard layouts to each other, or post them on websites for easy download/installation, reverting back to the original when the guest is done typing. More ad-hoc devices (like public kiosks, for instance) might have to stick with a common few – also selectable by the user at start-up.
Suddenly, it occurs to me that there’s another definition of QWERTYies. They’re not just standards that stick because we’ve all become accustomed to them. In some cases, they’re standards that exist because we used to need standards in places where we don’t anymore. Telephone rings come to mind – it used to be that every telephone had the same RRRRRRING!!!!! Today, we have the ring-tone. TV Remote Controls used to have standard layouts, depending on the model of your TV. Today, universal remotes can be programmed with any layout and/or new key combinations.
I’m sure there are more, and I’m equally sure that as time goes on, the list will only get longer. In the meantime, though, I’m going to start designing my ideal, personalized keyboard…