Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Quirky QWERTY

Nowadays, having a smartphone is like telling others that, well, you are kinda

It is true that smartphones are smarter than other mobile phones. They have greater capabilities to perform more fanciful functions. However, I realise that not every smartphone owners are that smart when come to using their prized possession. Perhaps, it is just a necessary accessory to uplift their status.

Whatever it is, smartphones are selling like hotcakes.

I was browsing at some when window shopping the other day. The sales person was enthusiastic when briefing me on the features (it must be the effect of recession). Among other things, he highlighted the QWERTY keyboards found on the models we were looking at.

QWERTY refers to the universal keyboard layout on typewriters and computer keyboards.
It actually takes the name from the first six characters seen on the far left of the keyboard's top row letters (above). Lately, mobile phones too have jumped on the bandwagon and offer such keyboards on newer models.

I know what is a QWERTY keyboard but I wanted to know why QWERTY? Why are the characters on our keyboards arranged in that manner? They do not go by alphabetical order and for that matter, they do not follow any apparent logical order. The arrangement makes no sense at all. It is awkward, inefficient and confusing and yet, QWERTY keyboard is universal.

So, why is everyone not asking WHY? I just gotta find out.... and this is what I've got...

Way back in 1868, typewriter keys were arranged alphabetically in two rows. This early model was sluggish and the keys often clashed and jammed when used. The inventor, C.L.Sholes tried to solve the problem by rearranging the keys.

Sholes separated common letter pairs such as TH and CH so that the keys would not clash into each other when typed in succession. After some rearrangement and further refinement, the QWERTY keyboard was born and patented in 1878 (above).

Later, when the original mechanical typewriters were gradually replaced by their electric counter part, there were no technical needs to keep the QWERTY keyboard arrangement any more. However, too many people had since acquired typing skills with the QWERTY keyboard and it would take a revolutionary move to change it. Today, the same arrangement is still seen on even the most sophisticated computer keyboards.

The QWERTY keyboard arrangement is not considered efficient. Since it was used more than 130 years ago, many alternative keyboards emerged, trying to make things better but they came and went.

For example, in 1932, Dvorak came up with a new keyboard where the keys were arranged based on the frequency of use. He kept all the vowels and the most common consonants on a single home row (above). By having "AOEUIDHTNS" on the same row, a typist can type many commonly used English words without ever leaving the home row and hence making typing more efficient.

Dvorak's keyboard sounds good but it failed. Many were not convinced that it was superior to the good old QWERTY keyboard. Most of all, it was too troublesome to learn to type on a totally new keyboard.

Decades ago, there was no personal computer and the only keyboard was found on the mechanical typewriters. Learning how to type was a serious business and knowing how to meant you possessed a skill that not everyone had. There were schools set up just to teach typing skill and girls flocked to acquire the skill so that they could later use it to impress their potential employers.

I did not go to any of those typing schools but I did deliberately learn how to use a typewriter. I was taught to use it with correct fingering just like how you would have done so on the piano. There were right places for the right fingers and messing them up were not acceptable even though it meant getting my little fingers stuck between the keys.

I 'upgraded' from mechanical typewriters to the electric ones and typing just got easier. When I had my first personal computer during my undergrad days, I earned my pocket money by helping others type their research papers. It was good money.

Today, computer users know how to type and many do so with a respectable speed. Hardly anyone has learnt to type the traditional way. Most of them acquire the skills by and by and they just become better through intensive usage. In fact, many of us are doing 'touch typing', meaning we can type without looking at the keyboard.

Today, not knowing how to type is like not knowing how to write. Interestingly, most of us can type better than we can write.

Majority of our mobile phones do not have a QWERTY keyboard and that includes mine. Over the past one decade, we have learnt to 'type' in a totally different way by just by fiddling with our thumbs. When it comes to sending SMS or texting, some people have restless thumbs that cannot stop 'talking'. It has become a way of life and many users literally hold a conversation using SMS.

Remarkably, we hold the world record as the fastest texter. In 2005, Singaporean Kimberly Yeo set the world record in 43.2 sec. In 2006, the record was broken by Singaporean Ang Chuang Yang in 42.22 sec. Last year, Jeramy Sng Gim, clocked 41.40 sec.

If you think you too have flying thumbs, you can try typing the text provided by Guinness: "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human." You may just turn out to be our next record holder in 2009.

However, if you are still typing with both your index fingers on a QWERTY keyboard or texting at tortoise speed, do something about it. Although we are not here to impress anyone with our typing or texting speed, we do not want to be left behind in today's fast speed communication.

Now, I can finally be at peace with the QWERTY keyboard.

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