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Dvorak keyboard

August 2, 2005

A public radio commentary

I'm surprised at the number of listeners who've asked me to tell the story of QWERTY. That word refers to the arrangement of letters on a typical keyboard: Look at the upper left hand row and you'll see the keys Q-W-E-R-T-Y. You see, listeners want me to talk about it because it supposedly proves the pure irrationality of the technological marketplace.

The designers of the QWERTY keyboard, the legend goes, placed the keys randomly to slow down typists. And once adopted no other keyboard could take over. The prime piece of evidence for this is an alternative keyboard called the Dvorak layout. It is vastly superior, but alas was squashed by the inferior QWERTY keyboard, only, though, because the QWERTY keyboard entered the market earlier.

Now, here's the true story and its moral.

August Dvorak, a professor of educational psychology, redesigned the keyboard using the then current notions of time-motions studies. A true believer in a purely scientific approach to life he urged his pupils to "Make yourself efficient and up-to-date, wherever possible, by the use of available machines." In short, he said use machines to, quoting him again, "be civilized."

To Dvorak, it appears, nothing proved a greater threat to civilization than the nasty QWERTY keyboard. He found it to be, in his own words, "so destructive that an improved arrangement is a modern imperative." So, he designed a keyboard that minimized fatigue and was easier to learn.

Or, so he claimed. Alas, for the benefit of the Western World, the evidence is scant.

Most of the evidence of the superiority of the Dvorak keyboard rests on studies done by the Navy during World War II. That is, until one looks more closely. The report's author was one Lieutenant August Dvorak - the Navy's leading time-motion expert.

In modern times researchers detected either no advantage or a slight increase of four percent, at best, in typing speed. In fact, one researcher concluded "[d]o not waste time rearranging the letter[s]" on a keyboard.

Oddly, many take the moral of the Dvorak keyboard's failure to be that the technological marketplace doesn't change, that we'll live with an inept device simply because the manufacturer got to the market first.

Yet, the real lesson lies in the new keyboard's tiny, at best, improvement over the QWERTY keyboard: To dislodge an existing technology requires a significant change in performance, and likely an increase in functionality.

The marketplace does indeed change: Just ask the manufacturers of vinyl records or cassette tape, they've long been displaced by CDs and MP3 players. These new devices do the job of their predecessors, but - and here's the key - they also offer vastly different capabilities. You would never, after all, use records or cassette tapes to share music via the internet.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises