Dvorak Keyboard Layout

Whatever happened to the Dvorak (simplified) keyboard layout. This was what the “keyboard” switch was for on the Apple //c computers.

It seems to be more-or-less dead. They’re harder to get than normal Qwerty keyboards, and I only see a few diehards, like my brother, still using them. As a touch typist, I find my brother’s keyboard very hard to use.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island

The Dvorak keyboard is laid out in a manner that is more attuned to the English language than the standard “QWERTY” keyboard, which was designed with that arrangement to prevent interference of type-bars that were hit in close succession. (The Dvorak-inspired story is that QWERTY was designed to “slow typists down”, but I think this is a propagandist take on the matter.)

There have been many claims that Dvorak typists are MUCH quicker than QWERTY typists. I do not dispute that Dvorak typists use less energy in their typing, so over the long haul there might be something to the assertion. However, for short typing tasks there is the counter-argument that people who are so motivated to speed up their typing that they would learn a non-standard layout are probably going to be concentrating pretty hard on increasing their speed. (Most people acquire a particular typing speed and then accept it as “sufficient”.)

If you were to put the top Dvorak typist in a contest with the top QWERTY typist, and they were both typing in English, I would expect that the Dvorak typist would win. However, life isn’t all about performance, or else everybody would take the bus while they save up for Ferraris. The fact is, the QWERTY keyboard is here, and it isn’t all that bad. Maybe you can get a 20% improvement with Dvorak, but that’s hardly enough to change the standard.

At first glance, you might think that I’m being dense when I suggest that Dvorak can only produce a 20% improvement. Okay, so that’s just a wild estimate on my part. However, there’s more to keyboard design than putting the most common letters (etaoinshrdlu, in case you’re interested) in a convenient place. You also have to take into account their interplay.

You see, touch-typists preposition their fingers for letters that are coming up. If I have to type the word “thing” on a QWERTY keyboard, my left hand hits the T key and my right hand positions itself over the H key in advance. In this particular instance, the Dvorak keyboard has no advantage over the QWERTY keyboard (apart from the energy expenditure).

As a result, a mere analysis of letter frequency (etaoinshrdlu) is hardly enough to design an optimum keyboard. You’d have to know what KIND of text the person is typing (i.e. what words crop up most frequently, correlated in some way with a complex time and motion analysis). I can’t say for sure if the Dvorak layout takes this into account, but if so, then it is biased towards English, and that creates problems of its own.

I should mention that QWERTY is not the only popular layout. There is also the European AZERTY layout, which is similar to QWERTY. Both layouts suffer from the fact that they put the “E” key on the top row of the letters, since “E” is the most comonly used letter.

I think the Dvorak keyboard is indeed better than QWERTY. But I don’t think that its advantages are sufficiently superior that the need for a switch is compelling.

If we had a time machine, it would be wonderful if we could have convinced the first typewriter manufacturers (Remington?) to adopt Dvorak. But when all is said and done, it’s not really a major issue.

Afraid to fly? Hey, I’ve been there!

      • IIRC Reason magazine did a story on the origins of the Dvorak keyboard layout once, because this instance was cited as an example of a superior product being “crushed” in open capitalistic competition.
  • First of all, the Dvorak keyboard layout was invented by the guy named Dvorak. At the time, he touted it as a superior layout, which, marginally, it may have been - compared to all the others. Early on, different typewriter compainies used whatever layout they felt like; Querty was becoming dominant but there was no standardization at the time.
  • Do you remember the story about how Microsoft tested its NT server software against Linux and NT was oh-so-faster? Well, somehow Dvorak finagled it so that he got to run the performance tests for the Army (IIRC he was an Army officer at the time, or shortly before). And he cheated, pretty much every chance he could: he placed experienced Dvorak keyboardists up against relatively inexperienced Querty (+ other) typists. Guess what he found? Dvorak keyboards were 953% faster! Well, not that fast, but he made damn sure the tests were optimized for his own keyboard (that he owned the marketing rights to; did I say that part?). The Army evaluation was right around the end of WW2 and much of the brass, 1, had their doubts it was as much faster as he claimed, and 2, were leery about retraining all their keyboard operators on another keyboard.
      • You can still find them, if you really want one for your PC. I seem to remember seeing software and decals you could use with your regular keyboard also, if you’re really cheap. Dvorak keyboards do require somewhat less energy to use, but the problem is that you have to comletely re-learn to type on them. Usually by yourself: few typing classes teach them. Those are the main reasons that hold most people and businesses back from trying them. And most problems with repetitive motion disorders have to do not with the layout of the keys, but the shape and location of the keyboard. So nobody cares, really. - MC

I don’t have an answer just putting in my 2 cents.
It is my belief that certain areas of the keyboard should be completely redesigned. for instance, the entire top row of numbers should be just those little signs instead. as we can easily use the 10 key and these symbols get more use now with computers, @ for example. a few other shortcuts can be implemented. I wish i were an inventor. oh well.

so you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts. what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts? Tori Amos

Dvorak is still around, and as has been pointed out you do not need a new keyboard to implement it on a computer. Simply redefine your keydefs (either through configuration files or with a software keymap substitution) and then add labels to your keys. Trivial, no. Eminently possible, yes.

Personal experience: I do not touch type, but my hunt and peck methods (six fingers and a thumb) is faster than my sife’s touch typing, at least for short bursts. Of course, that holds only when we are composing on the keyboard. Touch typists transcribe from a document much faster then us huntin’ peckers. Anyway, I used to work for a novelist who used the dvorak keyboard. When I was on his computer, I used his dvorak. When working at home, I used my qwerty. For the first 15 minutes or so after each switch, I would tpo about every third word. After that, my fingers adjusted and I saw no discernible difference in typing speed. But my ring fingers never cramped when I was typing dvorak.

Probably I was able to make the transition smoothly because I do not touch type, for which I can thank my anti-social attitude as a teen.

The best lack all conviction
The worst are full of passionate intensity.

With recent versions of Windows, you don’t need to buy a new keyboard.

Go to Control Panel and then to Keyboard. Click on the “Input Locales” tab, and then the “Properties” button. Several wacky layouts are available, including “US - Dvorak”, “US - Dvorak for left hand”, “US - Dvorak for right hand”.

I have never tried any of these but the impression I get is that if you choose one of these alternates, then your existing keyboard will give different characters than you’re used to, following the other layouts. Those lucky enough to know where they put their Windows manual will find diagrams of the layour in the back of the book, listed under “Accessibility Options”. Then you can try to move the keycaps, or mark them in some manner, to show what they now do.

There was a debate on this topic at Slashdot.org. While quite a few Dvorak zealots showed up, some surprisingly reasonable defenders of Qwerty responded well. Perhaps the most plausible point I heard in favour of Qwerty is that it’s supposed to avoid placing ‘most-used’ letters under or around ‘most-used’ keys to force the typist to use all ten fingers equally.

If you use your index finger ten times as often as you’re pinky, you’ll not only tire your index finger more quickly, but you’ll spend more time moving between keys since, as Timothy pointed out, on a Qwerty keyboard you can reach for one letter as you’re typing another.

I’ve been a touch-typist since high school, and have typed pretty much endlessly since then, first in an arts degree and then working with computers. At this point, my less significant digits don’t get tired before the rest of my hand, so the objection that you’re using your pinky instead of your index finger doesn’t really hold up, with enough practice.

Never attribute to an -ism anything more easily explained by common, human stupidity.

Cecil wrote on this subject.

If I recall correctly the famous article on the subject The Fable of the Keys (from Journal of Law & Economics, april 1990) said the Dvorak who ran the tests for the navy wasn’t the originator of the Dvorak keyboard layout, but a relative who had a financial interest in the project.