The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year was the showcase of all that's new and exciting in personal technology. Yet some of the new ideas seemed very familiar — none more so than the New Standard Keyboard from inventor John Parkinson. It's a logical, simplified, more efficient version of the illogical, complicated qwerty keyboard, a layout that takes less time to learn and less desk space. It's better in every way, in fact.
Efficiency is the great driver of IT innovation, and with a market of billions out there for something that'll ease the pain and speed the text, a better keyboard is a stunningly good idea. So good in fact, that people have been inventing better keyboards since the typewriter turned 130 years ago. Most computer shows have them — and they're doomed, like the losers' medals for the FA Cup, to be always brought but never used.
There is something improving, something Victorian, about this constant flow of thoughtful invention akin to A Superior Electrical Method For The Grooming Of Rabbits or embedding moveable type in the tyres of bicycles to print advertising messages on muddy roads. You can see immediately that they are a good idea. You understand at once the logical advantages so carefully embodied in countless late nights, hundreds of revisions alone at the kitchen table. You know instinctively that they haven't got the survival chances of a can of Jolt cola at a hacking convention..
Many stories exist to explain the qwerty layout — it was designed to stop keys sticking on early mechanical typewriters, or to make the word typewriter itself easy to pick out on the top row by salesmen. No one story is the complete answer. Qwerty, like MS-DOS, won out because it achieved a critical mass of users and shouldered the opposition out of the nest. The first typewriters were qwerty, and the first touch-typing courses taught qwerty: that was enough.
It shouldn't be like this. It feels almost immoral that two or three or a hundred different keyboard designs can't coexist in a Darwinian stew from which the meritorious victor will eventually arise. It's not as if the whole world needs to change overnight: we have standard USB connections on all our computers, and aficionados of each variant could just take their favourite from job to job. Telegraphers did it with their favourite Morse keys, writers did it with fountain pens. Indeed, there is a small but fanatical group who do it with what they reasonably consider the one true keyboard, IBM's Model M 'Clicky' #1391401 — the Steinberg of the qwerty world
Yet unless you develop repetitive strain injury or have some other pressing physical reason to abandon qwerty, you'll stick with what you know — even when changing over is free. Want to try the Dvorak layout, one of the few alternative layouts to hang on in the popular mind? You'll need a spare keyboard, a penknife and a PC running Windows XP. Find the layout online, lever off all the keytops from the keyboard and put them back on in the new layout. Then choose Regional and Language Options from the Windows XP control panel — ignoring the siren call of the Keyboard applet. This is Windows, remember? — then Languages, Details, Settings, Add installed services, Add input language, then pick US Dvorak from Keyboard layout/IME. It really is that simple.
I wouldn't bother. As far as anyone can tell, Dvorak is like the Beta video standard: everyone's read that it's superior, but nobody can prove it makes any practical difference. The original research that showed Dvorak's great advantages has not been replicable, and subsequent assessments haven't helped. For proficient typists, no alternative layout has a knock-out advantage. Logical efficiency doesn't translate into anything useful — a good lesson to bear in mind when looking at any IT invention.
The real secret of qwerty's enduring success, and the reason that every alternative is doomed to failure, is that if you can type fast, you'll type fast on anything. If you're doomed to hunt and peck, then it doesn't matter what layout you squint at. Whatever the system, you need to expend a certain amount of effort to become competent. That's the difficult part, and details of layout make very little difference. What counts for far more is who's around to teach you and what's around to learn on — and later, what's around to make use of your hard-earned skill.
Might it change? History is not encouraging. Consider the breathtaking fluidity of an accomplished pianist. They're using an input device which goes back more than two thousand years to Ktesibios, an inventive Greek who came up with the pipe organ. Is the musical keyboard so perfect it can survive two millennia? Perfection was not required: it worked, and that was what mattered.
A standard that's good enough to not get in the way of the skilful will last for twenty years, or a hundred, or two thousand. And so, much as it saddens me to say it, an Iron Age Greek trumps an Information Age engineer. In two thousand years time, if we're still typing, people will still be asking the question: just what is a qwerty, anyway?