Many attempts have been made to nix the good old QWERTY keyboard layout in favour of new, more efficient designs. Some, such as the Dvorak, have enjoyed modest success. Yet the wholesale adoption in the computer age of the persistent QWERTY, with a few simple language letter-swapping, is surprising.
The time to get rid of the 124-year-old standard layout would have been at the end of the typewriter era. A mass move to a different layout had been impossible in the days of mechanical keyboards. However, since touch-typing skills were largely limited to certain occupations, including secretaries, journalists, authors and amateur writers, an alternative electronic keyboard could have found popular support at the start of the computer era.
Now, I fear, the chance of a change is zero. Billions of computer and smartphone users are now familiar with QWERTY, however poor their typing skills. And unless you are a good typist, the keyboard layout doesn’t really matter. QWERTY is as good as anything if you are a hunt-and-pecker or a smartphone thumb typist.
Despite the almost universal use of the old layout, there are new ideas popping up all the time. In this article, Erez Zukerman explains how he has become proficient in using the Colemak keyboard. Only 17 keys have been moved to achieve a 50 percent reduction in finger motion when typing. The Colemak is now the third most popular keyboard layout after our familiar QWERTY and the Dvorak.
I’m intrigued by this enthusiasm, but the problem lies in language. The original layout, reputedly designed to prevent mechanical type bars on early typewriters from clashing and tangling, has become universal and accepted in most languages of the world. It was originally designed to slow down English-writing typists.
Any new layouts, such as the Colemark, help English speakers but would have little merit for speakers of other languages. For better or worse, therefore, we are stuck with an international QWERTY layout.
In common with the majority of typists, I accept the existing layout for what it is. It’s in my blood.