Posts Tagged ‘keyboard layout’

Dvorak and the Tall Nail

Sunday, February 22nd, ©2009 Marcus Brooks

I’ve been giving my old HTML Dvorak Keyboard pages some long-overdue attention; mostly pruning link rot. It got me thinking. Sometimes I get email or see postings from people who seem really angry that I advocate Dvorak. Why the anger?

First, for those who may not know:

  • Mechanical needs made the standard QWERTY keyboard layout more-or-less random. No, QWERTY was not designed to encumber the typist’s motion, nor did its design accidentally enhance typing motions.
  • QWERTY never faced real free market competition. Early alternatives either copied QWERTY or used weird mechanisms. Later, switching was always too expensive until very recently, and even now the change can be scary.
  • The science about keyboards is messed up. A positive 1940’s Navy’s study was accidentally classified for decades. A biased 1950’s GSA study concluded that Dvorak was not enough better to justify a multimillion dollar switch. Economists arguing about something entirely unrelated to typing howl down the Navy study and inflate the GSA study as disproof of Dvorak (which it was not).

So take note: when I say QWERTY is awful, I am not saying that capitalism is slavery, or that the bourgeoisie is exploiting the proletariat. I am only talking about keyboard layouts. I’ve used both QWERTY and Dvorak. QWERTY is awful.

Why does saying that make people mad? Because QWERTY works (sort of), and people can get used to almost anything as long as they don’t know better. Once you’re convinced Dvorak is better, you’ve got a new decision to make.

If you can already type fast in QWERTY, it makes sense to stick with it. But why are children still learning QWERTY in the first place? Mostly it’s just ignorance, but some schools and parents seem afraid that a child who learns Dvorak can’t function in a QWERTY workplace; that employers won’t let them “modify” the company’s computers. In fact, no actual modification is required; one simply changes a built-in setting. I have yet to encounter an employer who objects, although I suppose it happens.

Still, if the slight risk of having to learn QWERTY in some future is so awful, how is it worse than settling for QWERTY in the first place, and being stuck with it for life? Is it best to keep kids from learning Dvorak so they never have to know how awful QWERTY is? 

Another risk is nonconformity itself. The Japanese say, “The nail that stands up gets hammered.” We Americans are supposed to be proud of our individualism, but when it comes to kids, even Americans seem terrified that theirs won’t “fit in” at school or work. I’m not a parent, but like many parents I remember not fitting in at school. I agree that was painful.

But I also remember how QWERTY held me back in school, and afterwards. If I’d been the fast kid in QWERTY class I might not care. But I wasn’t. If I’d tried Dvorak then, I’m convinced it would’ve given my life a ten-year jump start. If I thought my parents had known about Dvorak and never told me, well, I would not have thanked them for it!

I’m not saying to force Dvorak on your children, but please let them know it exists and let them try it if they want to. If the school insists on QWERTY, kids can try Dvorak later (if they still want to). Just make sure they use one keyboard exclusively while learning it. After they know each pattern well, they should be able to switch back and forth quickly.