Thursday, January 21, 2010

Grandpa Laid it Out

State-of-the-art home theater, a fancy car, and trendy shoes: you’ve got it all. Your beef’d up computer has all the cutting edge technologies that you show all your friends, colleagues, and even strangers around. Little you know, your keyboard layout is a bit less than 150 years old. Not exactly cutting edge, if you ask me.

QWERTY keyboard layout has been designed to slow typists down on typewriters. Yes, exactly. We’re talking about the old good mechanical typewriters. The main problem occurred when two or more keys were struck too quickly and the hammers would normally jam. The keyboard layout managed to circumvent this problem by forcing the typist to type slowly with an awkward disposition of keys.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Keyboard Layout Awareness

There have been few attempts to bring forth new keyboard layouts. Their individual successes were however highly mitigated and undermined by the overwhelming presence of QWERTY keyboard layout. The cost of conversion of typewriters and typists was one of the main factors playing against converting, that is, back in the days. This is no longer an issue.

Distributed under the same license as its original version.

I am a Dvorak typist since early 2000s. Converting from QWERTY to Dvorak was easy to me, contrary to what most people write on the Internet. I could type all right within a week and comfortably after two weeks. The most surprising thing is that I still can type on a QWERTY keyboard as of today; not as fast as I used to but at an acceptable average speed. In fact, to my own experience, I have no confusion typing on multiple keyboard layouts. I can type on QWERTY, AZERTY, Dvorak and Russian keyboards.

Speed is one reason to convert to an optimized keyboard layout such as Dvorak. However, my primary interest laid on its ergonomics. I spend a tremendous number of hours on a computer, my work implies. Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) are frequent among people who use computers for a long period of time, long hours daily during many years. Dvorak has 70% of the most frequently used letters in English on the home row, where the fingers already lay on.

I do feel less exhausted after a long work day. This is one of the first things I have noticed within the first 3 months after converting to Dvorak.

Dvorak is far from perfect and it was created in the mid-30s. A 74 years keyboard layout is still not exactly cutting edge. There are more recent efforts such as Colemak keyboard layout. Not necessarily my take since their premise includes high compatibility with QWERTY, as in, “it’s gonna be easier to learn” for which I don’t care about. They however have an interesting approach that circumvents some problems with Dvorak. Both Dvorak and Colemak have an higher efficiency, shorter distances and better ergonomics than QWERTY.

I have added some letters and dead keys on my custom Dvorak keyboard layout to make it easier to write foreign languages. This custom keyboard layout is based on the standard Dvorak because it is available on most operating systems (from DOS to Windows, MacOS X, Linux, etc). Some specific letters are added in-place with their original foreign keyboard layouts to facilitate usage upon necessity to type on such keyboards. For examples, the Norwegian letters “Ø, Æ, Å” are located to the exact same place it is located on a Norwegian keyboard (Bokmål).

Distributed under the same license as its original version.

There are dead keys on every key on the left-hand home row, from letter “A” to “I”. They allow constructing accented letters used in various languages, such as French and German. The dead key on the letter “I” has a different purpose and some symbols are associated with it (e.g. «, », æ, œ, and ç). The dead keys are on the left hand because they require to be combined with AltGr. This may not be the optimal solution but it is convenient and never did let me down since I have added them some four years ago. I am nevertheless interested to see how Colemak manages foreign languages letters and it may bring improvements on my custom keyboard layout.

This blog post is an attempt to raise awareness on the matter of keyboard layouts. I would be really pleased to see more efforts, research and studies related to keyboard layouts. Let’s hope that our society decides to get rid of the old QWERTY in favour of something more appropriate and up-to-date…

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