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A QWERTY Future?

December 13th, 2006

One of my employees was in my office this morning looking at a WSJ ad for Samsung’s new BlackJack because she’s thinking out getting one. Drawing on my past experience with smart phones, I strongly recommended that she not get one with one of those new-fangled keyboards that have two letters and one number per key. (I don’t know who thought that up anyway – must’ve been someone with tiny thumbs.)

Fortunately, the BlackJack has a QWERTY keyboard, so she might get one. (Then again, RIM’s lawsuit against Samsung has her thinking twice.)

So we got to talking about keyboards in general and the QWERTY system specifically. See – originally, typewriters keyboards were arranged alphabetically. But there was a problem: as typers got faster and faster, the key striker bars that put the ink on the paper kept getting stuck on each other. So in 1868, Christopher Sholes – a newspaper editor from Milwaukee (he was originally from PA) – redesigned the keyboard to spread out the most commonly used letters. This reduced the speed that typists typed and eliminated sticking. His system was also supposed to make it easier to type with two hands. In most cases, this is true – but not for all words. Stewardess is one example of a one-handed word.

If you look closely at this original typerwriter keyboard, you’ll see that the first letter on the top row is an “A.”

Non-QWERTY Keyboard

The QWERTY system made typewriter keyboards more efficient, but who uses a typewriter today? (The other day, one of our clients called to ask if we had one for a form he had to fill out. He didn’t have one and neither do we.) So now, years later we are all trained from middle school on (some of our kids even younger) to use an inefficient system based on out-dated technology. And we are faster typers than in any other time in history, even using an inefficient system.

This observation got us thinking – what other “efficient” systems being developed for today’s technology will make us less efficient when those technologies are obsolete? Dialing phone numbers for one. Speed and voice dialing are much more efficient, but how many of us still use the keypads on our mobile phones because it’s more familiar? And how can we create systems that won’t slow us down in the future? We’ll continue pondering this. .

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