There aren’t many inventions from the 19th century that remain in daily use across the world, completely unmodified. The flushing loo, the ballpoint pen and the safety match merit a mention. But one is so ubiquitous that most of us take it for granted: the Qwerty keyboard.
Ever since it was first produced in 1873, we have stuck with it. First on clunky, mechanical typewriters with their pleasing chika-chip-cha-chip-DING-ziiiiiiiip, then with electronic word processors and computers. Even now, touchscreen smartphones and iPads all boast the distinctive layout, despite the fact that very few of us are dexterous enough to touch‑type on a device smaller than a cigarette packet.
Even the most digitally supple teenager tends to use a hot-thumb shuffle to bang out their texts.
And so researchers have created a new keyboard that they claim is designed for people using two thumbs on a touchscreen device. Instead of Qwerty, they have come up with KALQ. Dr Per Ola Kristensson – possibly because he has a very difficult name to type (as I’ve just discovered) – says that the traditional layout has trapped users in “suboptimal text entry interfaces”.
He and his colleagues at St Andrews University calculate that the standard keys on a touchscreen device limits typing to about 20 words a minute. With their funky new KALQ board, which has all the vowels on the right-hand side, users were able to get up to 37 words a minute.
This is an obvious improvement. But it is not that surprising, because many difficult-to-spell pointy-headed academics, think the Qwerty keyboard is one of the least efficient pieces of kit ever invented.
Indeed, if we believe them, it is a miracle that this article ever made it on to the page. It would be quicker to scratch out my words using a stylus and wax tablet, and shout the finished article through a cup attached to a piece of string, than type it using a standard keyboard.
But the reason for Qwerty’s inefficiency is also the reason for its success.
Typewriters were invented by Christopher Sholes, a Wisconsin senator and newspaper editor. His first attempt, logically, placed all the keys in alphabetical order. But this meant that the mechanical levers, attached to the keys, became jammed if someone typed too quickly. So, after many experiments, he moved the most commonly used keys apart.
Thus the Qwerty was born. In fact, it was originally Qwe.ty – but then Remington, famous for its sewing machines and guns, and which produced Sholes’s typewriter, moved the R to a more prominent position.
There is no proof that Sholes wanted to slow down typing; he just wanted to stop his machine from becoming a ball of jumbled metal. But the effect was the same – typing using a Qwerty just isn’t very quick. Also, the spacing out of common pairings of letters is responsible for millions of people developing repetitive strain injury.
There are many other machines that allow people to type more swiftly and safely, most notably the Dvoˇrák board (invented by a distant cousin of the Czech composer), developed in the Thirties. Crucially, this version allows your fingers to jump and stretch less and your left hand and right hand are used equally – with a Qwerty, your left hand does well over half the work. The world record for typing on this version is more than 200 words a minute, a speed that would cause snapped fingers with a Qwerty board.
And if it’s supersonic typing you are after, you should have seen the old stenographers at work at the Old Bailey, who used strange machines that worked like pianos – they struck chords that produced phonetic sounds like “th” and “sh” and could type more than 300 words a minute.
Qwerty has survived for the simple reason that it got there first and provided a machine for a world that craved standardisation. This was the era when a nut produced in Manchester would not fit a bolt manufactured in London.
As Professor Doron Swade, a computer historian, says: “The big lesson of Qwerty was the fact that it was standard; it wasn’t the most efficient or the most ergonomically sound.”
To anyone who touch‑types, using Qwerty is as automatic as handwriting.
That is why, despite its myriad faults, Qwerty must stay. It is hard‑wired into our brains; to create two separate keyboards for different devices would cause a major short circuit.
ON THE NEW SIDE
Touchscreen typists urged to abandon qwerty keyboard for KALQ
Smartphone and tablet typists are being urged to abandon the qwerty keyboard layout for a new design it's claimed will make them more than a third faster.
Researchers at the University of St Andrews have developed a keyboard for handheld touchscreens called KALQ that allows typing 34 per cent faster. It will be released as a free Android app.
The team studied thumb movements and developed "computational optimisation techniques" to determine where letters should appear on the keyboard.
"The legacy of qwerty has trapped users with suboptimal text entry interfaces on mobile devices," said Dr Per Ola Kristensson of the University of St Andrews’ School of Computer Science.
The qwerty layout was developed in the 1870s and was popularised on Remington typewriters. Many alternatives have been developed since, such as the Dvorak SImplified Keyborad, which proponents claim reduces errors, is faster and reduces the chance of repetitive strain injury. All challengers have failed to usurp the qwerty layout, however, despite their advantages.
"Before abandoning qwerty, users rightfully demand a compelling alternative. We believe KALQ provides a large enough performance improvement to incentivise users to switch and benefit from faster and more comfortable typing," said Kristensson.
KALQ is designed for two-thumb typing with fewer sequences of single-thumb tapping, and so the movement required of each thumb is reduced.
"The key to optimising a keyboard for two thumbs is to minimise long typing sequences that only involve a single thumb. It is also important to place frequently used letter keys centrally close to each other," said Dr Antti Oulasvirta of the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany, who
collaborated on the research.
The computational optimisation techniques used by the researchers assigned every vowel to the right thumb. The letter Y, which can be used as a vowel or a consonant, was assigned to the left thumb.
Combined with an error correction algorithm, trained KALQ users were able to reach 37 words per minute, the fastest typing rate ever reported for thumb typing on touchscreen devices.
Android smartphone and tablet owners will be able to download an app from the Google Play store to adopt the KALQ keyboard. It will not be available for iPhone or iPad, however, because Apple does not allow third parties to alter the iOS keyboard.