Will society ever adopt a better keyboard layout?

So the QWERTY keyboard layout was originally designed in the 1800s for typewriters to prevent typebar clashes. And here we are in 2009, using the same keyboard layout simply due to tradition.

Numerous alternative layouts (some of which seem superior) have been proposed, but it seems like the QWERTY momentum is all but impossible to stop at this point. Will society as a whole ever adopt a new standard? Or is it just wishful thinking? What would have to happen to get the ball rolling?

First, you need to kill the majority of people who use the old keyboard layout. Preferably in the process you also destroy most or all of the old keyboards, to prevent new people from becoming accostomed to them. To acheive these ends, I recommend global thermonuclear war.

Barring this, you would need to either 1) make a new keyboard which is so awesome that people don’t mind the cost of replacing all their keyboards or the scary thought of losing all their touch-typing skills, or 2) enforce the new layout by authoritarian fiat. The latter is likely to happen before the former. So you might try conquering the world. (Keeping the nukes as a backup plan of course.)

i think it happens if we develop a keyboard/input layout/system that makes touch typing effective in a very small form factor (so like only using one hand or something) at a time when computer use is even more ubiquitous than it is now.

barring that, we’re locked in to QWERTY for a very long time.

I think it’s just never going to happen until keyboards themselves somehow become redundant.

For one, I would have to remap my keyboard. I still hunt and peck (not much hunting any more) and it would be inconvenient to me to say the least. The advent of word processing has pretty much set qwerty (how easy to peck) in stone.

Agreed. As long as we need to type, were not going to change how we do it. It’d be not unlike suddenly deciding to use a heiroglyphic alphabet…No one would think it was a good idea and no one would follow through.

Many of us live in a country of people where the Metric System has been officially adopted but we never look at the side of the ruler with 30 iterations on it. Why would we willingly give up our QWERTY?

Has anyone here ever actually learned Dvorak? I had a job a while back where I had to do a miserable amount of typing and just for fun I relettered an old keyboard I had lying around into a Dvorak and after a day or two of hunt and peck I was back up to about my Qwerty speed. I’ll admit that I didn’t really feel like it was quite the revolution that some of its proponents claim, but I’m sure if I’d had 20 years to practice like I did with Qwerty I could probably be faster.

I think people equate learning a new keyboard with how difficult it was to learn to type in the first place, but I think that picking up a new layout isn’t nearly as difficult as most people imagine. I’ll bet that if it became trendy, say if Apple decided this was a big new feature on one of their computers (GD, hooray!), people would have no problem picking it up.

Even if people merely think it would be hard to learn, that still retards acceptance, though. And of course there’s still the cost of replacing everything.

I think there will be a definite push to design a tiny keyboard that is intended to be typed on using only your thumbs.

To speed adoption, why not attach something useful to it, like a tiny phone?

Be sure to use a familiar layout though, like, I dunno… QWERTY?

I am not sure society itself needs to adopt anything in this regard. You can remap your own keyboard anyway you like it now via software. There are even new keyboards available now that don’t have hard-printed characters on them. Every keyboard has a tiny little LCD image that is software mapped and can display anything from Hebrew to Japanese. Knock yourself out. If enough people like the idea, it will catch on in a big way otherwise it will still be useful specialty purposes and foreign languages.

I’m guessing keyboards themselves are going to be obsolete before this change happens. Touch screens are the new thing - why bother with a keyboard when you can use the monitor itself as your interface?

Well, except greasy fingers. I recommend investing in the moist towelette industry.

At my last place, there was one guy who taught himself Dvorak and managed to convince a bunch of other people to switch. It made for interesting *pair programming. We had hot keys to switch between the two.

He could use both Dvorak and QWERTY but was much faster in Dvorak.

  • A trendy practice in the software industry - two programmers share a keyboard and a monitor, switching the keyboard back and forth between them.

I tried the same thing and had a similar experience; it was easy enough to pick-up and get up to speed.

But it would break down for me when I typed hotkeys, shortcuts, or quick command lines – things that were committed to the depths of muscle memory. When I am at the command-line and want a directory listing, I don’t think <d> followed by <enter>, I don’t even think at all – my hands just type the command. It would really interrupt my flow to first realize I had typed the wrong command and then second had to remember where the keys were. I expect I could have overcome this in weeks or months, but I didn’t want to spend that much time on the experiment.

Because you’ll be using up screen real estate for a copy of the keyboard, at which point you’re back to a touch-typing arrangement.

QWERTY or not, keyboards are a fantastically efficient general purpose, text-based input mechanism, compared to pens or mice or point and touch interfaces. The only thing that’ll replace keyboards is a more efficient type of keyboard.

The Master Speaks:

"*Baloney, say the authors of the article you enclose, S.J. Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis. They point out that (1) the research demonstrating the superiority of the Dvorak keyboard is sparse and methodologically suspect; (2) a sizable body of work suggests that in fact the Dvorak offers little practical advantage over the QWERTY; (3) at least one study indicates that placing commonly used keys far apart, as with the QWERTY, actually speeds typing, since you frequently alternate hands; and (4) the QWERTY keyboard did not become a standard overnight but beat out several competing keyboards over a period of years. Thus it may be fairly said to represent the considered choice of the marketplace. It saddens me to know I helped to perpetuate the myth of Dvorak superiority, but I will sleep better at night knowing I have rectified matters at last. "

Why not something like this: A cylinder* with 8 buttons, pushing a certain combination gets you a character, this could be unicode or some new character distribution set that’s translated into the correct input by the drivers. There could be a dial or keypad on the front that allows you to shift the starting “offset” i.e. entering a 0 offset would get you most of the English alphabet and maybe a little bit into other western sets (umlauts, etc), whereas, say, offset 256 starts you on, say, Greek, or Chinese characters. Since some (like Chinese) have so many characters more common ones would have to be moved into clusters, but the dial would be easy to reach with one thumb/finger when needed to allow for quick set shifting.

It would seem daunting at first, but I imagine you would get really fast at it. It actually reminds me a lot of playing a flute, bassoon, or other key-heavy-with-fixed-hand-position instrument. Of course, some combinations would be hard to switch between, the fingerings would have to be engineered so that these difficult switches primarily fell between letters/characters that were the most uncommon. Say, the letter “u” was (o means pressed, x means unpressed) oooxoooo (all fingers down except left hand pinky on a cylinder), “n” (think typing “un” since it’s a relative common prefix) could be oxoxooox (middle/pinky not pressed left, pinky not pressed right). Lifting two fingers just slightly and you have your next letter. Input would be on a short (ms) time delay after it detects a change in the keys pressed, to get double letters you could have a thumb key that enters the currently selected input if it detects no change, or you could quickly lift a finger and repress it before the timeout. Position “0” (all up) would be neutral and not do any input to prevent errors when you’re done typing. Common-to-many-character-set things like numbers would have to either be redefined ever x many offsets or be static, hardcoded combinations so they don’t matter. Alternatively, have a “number” character set that can be accessed by a thumb key or changing the character set dial/slider to some easy to feel-to position like the very top. Things like control and meta/alt would also be thumb keys.

People, if they wanted to, could tweak things on their local machines like input delay, “fingering charts” etc if they felt up to it.

It’s a little hard to visualize, but I think it would be an excellent keyboard for typing/coding etc. It’s not really practical for games where you need things like w, d, 1, and a free mouse hand all at once, so you’d have to stick with qwerty or those special “rearrange your own keys” gaming keyboards for that.

  • It could be a board, but I was imagining an upright cylinder with eight holes you put your fingers in. Doesn’t really matter.

I printed out a Dvorak chart and remapped my keyboard once. After a little practice, I was able to do about 60 WPM. I had to stop myself because I was afraid I’d lose my QWERTY skills (I tested at 97 WPM on a Selectric in high school…still have the certificate somewhere). I’d have to remap my keyboard at work. I frequently switch desks with my assistant to help certain customers and I’d have to either remap every time I do that or switch back to QWERTY and she would never be able to use my keyboard again without remapping.

There was a Japanese team working on an experimental keyboard based on a cylinder, but I can’t find the video or any images. It was a cylinder standing vertically with keys that went all the way around the outside. The user would put a left hand on the keys on the left side of the cylinder and a right hand on the right side.