QWERTY is an incredibly dated keyboard layout providing only disadvantages from a technical and usability point of view. Why is it still around; and what are the alternatives?
enter the rabbit’s burrow
After falling down the rabbit hole when I started to read the mechanical keyboard Reddit, I bought myself a really nice mechanical keyboard and I was happy for a while. For my first board I decided on the GK64 because it seemed quite small but it still retained all the arrow keys I use for programming. However, while browsing Reddit some more, something strange kept popping up. There are people building these crazy things called Dactyl-ManuForm that look like something out of a cyberpunk movie. Strange as it is, it got me thinking about the usability of keyboards. With my research background I could not help but notice that this weird thing had to have better usability when compared to normal keyboards.
from usability to keyboard layouts
So I did some research on keyboard ergonomics and was happy to see that there are people out there that care a lot about that topic and they came up with all kinds of keyboards (which lead me to build a split keyboard—a topic for another post). This search for ergonomics also includes alternative keyboard layouts. I read into the history, of the QWERTY layout; or at least the most likely version of it. I was shocked to read that its goal was to impede the usability and therefore the typing speed. Given that we have digital input hardware that can almost take any shape this does not make sense. So I set out to find what alternative keyboard layouts there are. Dvorak is well known but it seemed like a compromise to me. If I am learning a new layout why not go all out funky? That’s when I stumbled across Neo2. I spent about 6 weeks learning it to a level where I was able get a level of proficiency with it that allowed me to get some actual work done. You would not believe how satisfying it can be when you are able to finish a three sentence email within 5 minutes when every. single. stroke. is a chore.
NEO2 to BEAKL
Despite my progress I kept on looking around which layouts exist because NEO had some oddities with the English language; it was mainly designed for German. That’s when I discovered BEAKL(9). The ideas behind BEAKL make absolute sense to me and I also believe strongly in letting a machine do the work to find a (possibly) optimal solution to a given set of rules. So while my typing was still messed up I decided to make the switch over and immediately loved it. Apart from the placement of one key everything made sense and worked great. Though, I have to admit that compared to QWERTY, NEO2 already felt like a revelation as well. How could anyone live with a forced crutch like QWERTY? Typing with NEO already had a kind of effortlessness that I had not experienced with QWERTY—ever. It is difficult to explain but typing suddenly became a graceful act. With BEAKL my typing experience (I have to admit that this sounds strange) even improved. Recently when the maintainers of BEAKL updated their recommended version to number 15, they also remedied the minor shortcoming of version 9. I consider BEAKL15 the fulfillment of typing experience.
So why is QWERTY still around if it is so inferior? My guess is that the transition to something new is very costly. All the hardware we have is based on this outdated standard. While there are some NEO or Dvorak keyboards out there, they are an incredible niche. I also think that we can see network effects at play here and as long as funky, albeit better, alternative layouts stay such a small subculture, they will not become more common. I hope that the openness (open designs, guides, community work, etc.) of the awesome mechanical keyboard community will slowly change more people over to more usable input methods. I already know that if I ever have children they will get the pleasure of learning an actually usable keyboard layout.
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