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Why Are We Still Arguing About Keyboards?

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…

Topics: Tech Talk | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Why Are We Still Arguing About Keyboards?”

  1. Jeff Porten says at September 30th, 2009 at 2:56 am :
    Very amusing post: I use a Dvorak keyboard, and when I customize my ringtone, my favorite is a mechanical ring from a 1950s phone. It’s become more standard recently, but you should have seen the reaction at Starbucks when that went off a few years ago.

    I don’t know that your customized keyboard idea is a good one; most of the utility you get from any keyboard is muscle memory, and any customization is going to subvert that. Bigger question is why we use a keyboard paradigm at all on a virtual screen; my guess is that there’s a better way of doing things, but we don’t know what it is. Most likely, there’s no reason why a single keypress should correspond to a single character; I’m sure that a concordance of all of the writing I’ve done in the last few years would give me plenty of multicharacter strings which could be efficiently mapped to a single key.

    Hmmm… I just gave myself an idea.

  2. Brian says at September 30th, 2009 at 9:42 pm :
    Yeah – I think we’re both getting the same idea at the same time.

    My response to your “muscle memory” comment is that “virtual” keyboards don’t use that same muscle memory, since most “typing” is done with the thumbs or index finger(s). Once you’re not “hands on keyboard,” the “keys” could be in any order and/or, as you suggest, contain multiple characters, words, phrases, etc.

    Point is this: why not let the user customize it? Should be easy for the device maker to do and of great utility for the “power user.”

    Who do we call about this?!?!?

  3. Jeff Porten says at September 30th, 2009 at 11:19 pm :
    Thumbs are still muscle memory. Ever try switching from one phone to another, when the T9 input differed slightly? Doesn’t matter whether I’m staring at a keypad telling me that the space is now there, my thumb is still going to go to the old button. I’d imagine the same thing happens on a touchscreen, once you use more than one touchscreen device.

    Essential problem: most handheld devices have all sorts of 3rd-party data entry systems. My Palm TX had dozens of downloadable alternatives. But if it’s not baked into the OS, it’s not going to be as useful.

    Here’s my question: why isn’t our software more modal? You send me an email which I read on my cell phone — why can’t I email you back a recorded voice message? Hell, it should even show up with a transcript. Instead, I have to use whatever data entry mechanism is currently there to send you text. Silly.

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