Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2009

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 TECHNOLOGY TALK:

BY JOHN ANDERSON  

We type. We type at work, we type at home, we type in between. Because of the amount of time we use our computers the days of hunt and peck are long behind us. But is there a better way? Those who use the Dvorak keyboard say there is.

The Dvorak ("duh-VOR-ack") keyboard isn’t anything you have to go out and purchase. You already have it built into your computer. It isn’t a different keyboard, it is a different keyboard layout, and it’s been around a long time. The layout is the ergonomic alternative to the ubiquitous "Qwerty" layout found on all computers and typewriters. It was designed with an emphasis on typist comfort, productivity and ease of learning. It’s much easier for beginning typists to learn on a Dvorak keyboard than a Qwerty. For those of us already using a Qwerty (ie. all of us), it can be a living hell. But those who have survived the conversion have proclaimed the benefits to this more intelligent way of typing. These include fending off the long-term damage from repetitive-stress injuries those who type daily are prone to.

HISTORY

The QWERTY layout, introduced in the 1860s, was used on the first commercially-successful typewriter invented by Christopher Sholes. The Qwerty keyboard was designed to accommodate the slow mechanical movement of those early typewriters.

The Dvorak Keyboard layout was patented in 1936 by August Dvorak, professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, and William Dealey. The design took about 12 years to perfect and included extensive study of languages using the Roman alphabet, the physiology of the hand, and practical studies. The layout addressed the problems of inefficiency and fatigue which characterized the QWERTY keyboard layout.

By the time Dr. Dvorak came up with his design there were already hundreds of thousands of typewriters using the Qwerty layout. Manufacturers were also operating under the plausible but unproven assertion that typists could not type faster than the machines could respond mechanically.

Also around this time World War II broke out and the War Dept. ordered all typewriter keyboards be set to the most-common standard (Qwerty) while typewriter manufacturers retooled to produce small arms. By the end of the war, Qwerty was here to stay.

The LAYOUT

The Dvorak has the most-used consonants on the right side of the home row, and the vowels on the left side of the home row. Among other design features, it is set up to key back and forth from right hand to left. When the same hand is used for more than one letter in a row (e.g., the common t-h), it is designed not only to use different fingers when possible, to make keying quicker and easier, but also to progress from the outer fingers to the inner fingers. This is described as "inboard stroke flow". It's the same movement you make when you drum your fingers on the table.

The design puts about 70 percent of all English keystrokes on the home row compared to only 32 percent of Qwerty's, making Dvorak much easier and faster to use. The keys on the home row alone can be used to make over 5000 words. If you had learned to type on a Dvorak keyboard you could have typed real words on your first day of typing class. And finally, because it is easier for your fingers to reach up on the keyboard than down the row above the home row contains the next-most-used letters and punctuation. The least-used keys are on the bottom row.

SWITCHING

Since switching to the Dvorak keyboard people have claimed that they no longer experience wrist pain after long hours of typing and feel they are less likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries. Most users are also able to type faster than they could on their Qwerty counterpart. (In 1985 Barbara Blackburn’s achieved a Guinness Book world Record of 212 wpm using a Dvorak keyboard.) Despite these claims the Dvorak Layout has still failed to displace the QWERTY.

The argument has been compared to past attempts to switch to the metric system or the competition between Betamax and VHS, where inferior technologies sometimes succeed simply because of their popularity.

At this point the biggest reason is because Qwerty is what we learned and that is what came in the box when we bought our computer. Typing training in schools is nearly always done on the QWERTY layout both because it conforms to the expectation of employers and because it is the layout with which most teachers or trainers are already familiar.

And let’s face it. When you do try to switch you are going to type slow. Dvorak may be easy to learn but unlearning Qwerty is much more difficult. For most of us typing is like talking. It just happens. Words magically appear without any awareness of the actual process.  Typing is one of those things you don’t just know with your mind but it is programmed into your fingers. Switching to this new system will play havoc with your thought process. When you start you will need to retrain your brain to the new pattern. Retracing the new patterns through old terrain will not be easy. Before you’re finished you will experience anger and frustration but in the end will it will be worth it? It will, if only for your sense of accomplishment. It’s best to know what you are in for on the rough road ahead and judge whether this challenge is for you or not. If your goal is speed the disruption the learning process causes may be the reason not to. If you need to type and you need to find an easier way, then maybe so.

There are two tips to help make the process easier. 1) if you are going to do it, do it. If you try to jump between the two systems it will slow your progress and make things more difficult. And 2) print out the keyboard layout and put it between the screen and the keyboard. Don’t look at the keys, look at the printout until you’ve memorized it.

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