The antiquated system plugged into every smartphone

Why is a keyboard system created for a typewriter in 1873 still prevalent in 2014, with no sign of waning in popularity?

The ease and speed with which we communicate aids nearly everything we do. Most people are fairly adept at typing - whether it’s punching out an email, or using their fingers to type a message into their phone. We’re wired to recognise the placement of letters on keys, to the point where it feels like second nature.

Q-W-E-R-T-Y are six familiar letters along the top left of our keyboards, as well as the name used to identify the style of keyboard the vast majority of the population uses. As it turns out the Qwerty keyboard has nothing to do with intuition, efficiency or speed of communication; its origins indicate quite the opposite.

It all began with the typewriter. Common letter combinations were placed as far apart as possible to stop typewriter bars from jamming. While this was great to ensure the smooth running of the typewriter, it meant that commonly used letter combinations were far apart, slowing down the efficiency of typing and increasing the chance of repetitive strain injuries.

Fast forward to release of the first computer. There were no bars to jam, but the Qwerty keyboard remained, because it was what people knew. It would be a difficult task to change the letter combinations ingrained in millions of people, and economically, it was too great a risk to break away from the status quo.

With the introduction of the first text message friendly mobiles, we relearned how to communicate. Remember the days of the Nokia brick, when if you wanted to enter ’C’, you’d press the ‘2’ button three times, pushing through A and B, to get to C? Our language also changed to assist efficiency, with ‘txt’ language relying on abbreviation to quickly convey a message.

This was quickly weeded out with the arrival of Qwerty keyboards in mobile, from the Blackberry, to the first iPhone. Considering we use two fingers on a tiny screen, it's amazing such an antiquated system survived and thrived.

One alternative to Qwerty is Dvorak. While this may sound like something from 'Game of Thrones', its beginnings are a little more modest. Patented in 1932 by August Dvorak and his brother-in-law Dr. William Dealey, Dvorak has a different layout, which is based around frequently used letter combinations. All the vowels are on one side, all the commonly used consonants are on the other and letters you don’t use as much like q, x, z are further reaching.

When I made the transition to Dvorak it was initially difficult and frustrating. My brain had been wired to type in a certain pattern for a long time. The first month was very slow, by the second month I was functional and by the third month I was a lot faster.

I used to get a lot of shoulder and elbow pain, which was a combination of a Qwerty keyboard that was badly shaped and using a mouse. I now have a Dvorak keyboard and track ball and that pain has completely subsided. In my opinion, typing on Dvorak is far more speed efficient and ergonomically friendly, and I would never transition back to Qwerty.

There are other mappings for keyboards, from the Abc layout, to ‘Azerty,’ an alternative to Qwerty for French speaking countries, to Maltron, a keyboard with letters and numbers broken into three separate squares. It's great to see different keyboards produced for different needs and preferences. 

When I specialised in human computer interaction at Stanford University, I found the history and prevalence of Qwerty fascinating. It’s always been curious to me as to why there hasn’t been an effort to come up with a more efficient mobile keyboard.

The reality is we don’t really think about the processes we engage in to communicate, it’s something we just ‘do’. This is why a keyboard system created for a typewriter in 1873 is still prevalent in 2014, with no sign of waning in popularity.

So next time you type something on your computer or mobile, take a good look at your keyboard, and note the directions your hand move. Could it be more efficient? Is this the keyboard for you?

Paul Lin is the CEO of Bunna, Australia's leading app strategy and development agency.