Why stick to Qwerty keyboard

Essay by Henry LewisUniversity, Bachelor'sB, September 1996

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The Qwerty keyboard - named Qwerty because the letters q, w, e, r, t, y are arranged next to each other - has been the universal standard since the beginning of the 1890s. Since then, there have been many proposals by other keyboard makers to market products that would enable users to type faster. Other proposals put the most frequently used letters - dhiatensor - in the middle row.i Although these keyboards enable users to type far faster than the qwerty keyboard, they are rarely sold. There are several reasons for this. First, there is no need for the regular users to type any faster than at the current speed. Second, for the people whose job require fast typing, the new keyboards can lead to bigger health problems that develop from continuous typing. Third, and most importantly, standardization has led the qwerty keyboards to firmly hold the position as the keyboard.

There are major differences between the two types of keyboard users; the regular users and the other typists. The regular users are people who uses the keyboard for word processing, e-mailing, and internet; there is not much of a need for them to type extremely fast. They do not type mechanically but rather based on their thought, and thinking takes time. In other words, faster keyboards are irrelevant for them because they are not continuously typing. They need to think what they are going to write, one sentence one after another.

On the other hand, the typists whose job is simply to type, do so continuously. They also happen to be the major victims of repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) which is in large part caused by continuously stroking the keyboards. In an article about RSI, Huff explains the changes that the companies are undergoing to become more productive:

Many work practices are changing with automation to increase productivity. These include fewer staff, heavier workloads, more task specialization, faster pacing of work, fewer rest breaks, more overtime, more shift work and nonstandard hours, and more piece work and bonus systems. These work practices can entail very prolonged rapid or forceful repetitive motions leading to fatigue and overuse of muscles.ii

Because RSI is a major problem to the typists, it would be a suicidal move for them to adopt faster typable keyboards. More of them will develop RSI. As for the companies that hire these typists, not only will the frequency of RSI development increase, the amount of money that the companies have to compensate to the employees who develop RSI will also increase. The fact that the qwerty keyboard is less efficient presents typists from getting more serious health problems.

Finally, the role of standardization greatly influences where the qwerty stand in the keyboard market. Once the qwerty was standardized, no other types of keyboards could enter into competition regardless of how much more efficient they were. That is because a standardized layout enables users to have to know just one kind of layout. Keyboard layout is like different languages. If there are different languages being spoken when people are trying to communicate with each other, it becomes very difficult to understand. The communication would be very inefficient. What if a new keyboard becomes standardized? Navy studies in the 1940s showed that the change from qwerty to a more efficient keyboard would pay for itself within 10 days.iii However, this study shows the result from the corporation's view. Although corporations will certainly be able to make more money out of same amount of time by adopting the new keyboard, there are other factors that are not taken into account - human cost. If the new, more efficient keyboards are to be standardized, there would be enormous spending on reeducation, relearning, repurchasing, and replacement. The cost of doing this would be enormous.

In short, the qwerty keyboard is efficient enough for people to use. It's fast enough for regular users, and it's slow enough for typists to avoid further health problems. And, attempt to standardize a new keyboard would be extremely difficult and expensive. Yet, people might not even have to concern themselves with the keyboards anymore soon. The advancement of technology keeps bringing wonders to the world. In near future, voice recognition programs using microphones, might replace keyboards. Then, RTI - Repetitive Talking Injury - might be a big issue. Who knows?

i Huff, C., 'Putting technology in its place' in Social Issues in Computing, Huff, C. and Finholt T. (Eds), McGraw Hill. 1994, pp. 2.

ii Huff, C., 'Computing and your health' in Social Issues in Computing, Huff, C. and Finholt T. (Eds), McGraw Hill. 1994, pp. 103-104.

iii Huff, C., 'Putting technology in its place' in Social Issues in Computing, Huff, C. and Finholt T. (Eds), McGraw Hill. 1994, pp. 3.