Relaxing last night, I watched a BBC4 half-hour history of the typewriter. Now, I can imagine you reading that and wondering what on earth I might find stimulating in any way about such a topic. Well, having learnt to touch-type (fairly slowly) when at college (a skill now dormant I lament to say) encouraged by my good pal at the time (Doctor) Dylan Jones-Evans and his little coloured stickies that obscured the keyboard’s letters, I can admit to a touch of fascination about how come the keys were laid out in what can only be described as a bizarre fashion.
‘Qwerty’ to us all, means the configuration with which we’re all familiar. Yet it just seems so inefficient. Why for instance, is the ‘a’ always pressed by my weakest and least responsive digit (left-hand little pinkie)? It turned out the reason for the qwerty arrangement was because the one tried first, a simple alphabetical ordering, created jamming of the mechanics that placed ink on paper. This necessitated a way of keeping the most commonly used letters apart. Qwerty was, it seems, a randonmly arrived at solution to overcome mechanical difficulties.
Having nothing to do with user efficiency, an alternative configuration was created. It was known as ‘dhiatensor’. The keys were still laid out in the three rows common to us, but crucially, the bottom row went in this arrangement from left to right. The reasoning was that an incredible 80% of all words typed can be made from these 10 letters (this was a fact I disputed until I thought about how few options my predictive texting coughs up on even the smallest of words). The other bonus was that an operator’s fingers were required to cover less distance than on qwerty set-ups, so user-efficiency was dramatically improved.
Consequently two alternatives were now vying for the medal of ‘standard’. Betamax & VHS, Mac versus Windows, I hear you cry, and of course, you could name many more instances where the universally considered ‘best’ solution somehow failed to take the title.
So, how did cumbersome, irksome qwerty win? Well, I have often been in scenarios where I have battled in blind benchmark tests against one other shortlisted competitor. I have never experienced a “fair” such contest. And if you sell the type of product where benchmarking can sway the decision, this story should be used to your advantage.
The two formats agreed to a shoot-out. They would each take on the same piece of work, and whichever machine produced the output quickest, would win out.
The qwerty crew prepped liked crazy. Their chosen operator had memorised the keys, and had learned to, in effect touch type whilst reading the copy. (Back in these days of yore, everyone two-fingered typed.) The dhiatensor operative, relied on their tried and trusted method of looking at the keys. This simple tactic allowed the inferior methodology to ‘win’. (And who’s to say that qwerty weren’t party to the text too). The benchmarking had been rigged.
Incensed by this injustice (although secretkly being impressed at the victor’s planning and salesmanship) I researched qwerty alternatives for a better solution (even for my current 4-finger approach) and found that windows enables you to switch your keys to something known as the “dvorak” configuration. There’s even youtube clips to walk you through it. Time to allocate some time next weekend to get a fork out and flip up all those keys, after all, think of the conversations I can now start with prospects to begin to distinguish myself!