Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dvorak's New World Keyboard

It was in the mid-1990s that I first heard of the Dvorak keyboard. The idea of an alternative to the popular QWERTY keyboard intrigued me, as I'd never considered there might be another option. The story is that the QWERTY layout was actually designed to slow you down, putting an upper limit on typing speed so as to prevent jamming of the old mechanical typewriters. With the advent of the computer, jamming is no longer an issue, so it makes sense to consider alternatives that maximize speed or offer other advantages.

You can read more about the Dvorak layout via the link above, but the short version is that August Dvorak and his brother-in-law William Dealy spent over a decade exploring word and letter patterns in the English language and studying the way the human hand moves to come up with a layout that is scientifically designed to increase speed, decrease errors, and reduce fatigue. The promise of superior performance, combined with the geek cool factor, have had me wanting to check it out for some time.

Unfortunately, the Dvorak keyboard never caught on. It has joined the Betamax as a keen example of the Mousetrap Fallacy. Introduced during the Great Depression, and battling the entrenched popularity of the QWERTY keyboard, Dvorak's better mousetrap didn't offer enough perceived advantages to lure businesses and typing schools out of their respective comfort zones. It's expensive and time consuming to replace and retrain, and there is risk in breaking away from a standard that already serves you well.

For these and other reasons, I've never made the effort to try out a Dvorak keyboard, despite my curiosity. Then, recently, I learned that all major computer operating systems allow you to make the switch with a simple settings change. And so I did.

The change in settings doesn't change the labels on the keys of course, but I figure that's a good thing. I could opt to buy an actual Dvorak keyboard, attach homemade (or store-bought) labels to my existing keys, or even pop the existing keys off and snap them into their new homes. But why bother? A quick search pulled up a number of web sites that offer hands-on introductions to key assignments. I used this one. Not being able to "cheat" by peaking at the keys helped me learn the key assignments quickly, and once I had that down I switched to this site, which lets me practice while reading folk stories from around the world.

I made the switch a couple of weeks ago and, so far, things are going well. I haven't worked at it hard, but I've been chipping away at it a bit each day. I'm up to around 30 words per minute, so I have a way to go before I reach my QWERTY level of around 60. I had a couple of times when I had to get something typed up quickly, so I temporarily switched back to QWERTY. The switch back took a bit of concentration, but wasn't too bad. I've read that it's fairly easy to switch back and forth once you get the Dvorak system "under your fingers." I'm not there yet; I still have to pause sometimes to reestablish my bearings -- especially when my mind is tired. I am, after all, not just forming new muscle memories but overriding old ones.

I don't know if I'll ultimately stay with the Dvorak layout or revert back to QWERTY. I'll have to wait until I'm up to speed to make a true comparison. I'll report back as the experiment continues.

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