The Fable Of The Keys

"The Fable of the Keys" by S.J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis

A historic comparison of QWERTY and DvorakKeyboards.

See http://wwwpub.utdallas.edu/~liebowit/keys1.html


You might hear comments from time to time about studies showing Dvorak is "no better than QWERTY," or words to that effect. All such comments that I've heard seem to echo an article, "The Fable of the Keys," by S. J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis, published in the Journal of Law & Economics, vol. XXXIII (April 1990).

Note the word "economics." Liebowitz and Margolis are economists opposed to an "excessive inertia" theory, for which QWERTY is often cited as an example. Rather than try to prove their point with a generally valid argument, they simply attack Dvorak as a dubious replacement for QWERTY. As the article's last footnote explains, there are a number of other possible reasons for Dvorak's failure to replace QWERTY, besides a perceived lack of value. The article ignores those reasons, however, and perpetrates that false perception in a nicely self-fulfilling way.

The argument involves perception in more ways than one. If you read the article carefully, you will find that it seems to claim more than it actually does claim, especially after its implications get paraphrased a few times in conversation. Because their effect is just as powerful, I will address its implications as if they were clearly stated claims:

http://www.mwbrooks.com/dvorak/dissent.html


Many economists believe that in a free market, the best product will prevail. In doing so, they forget about the compatibility factor. This is why VHS, Microsoft Windows and QWERTY succeeded - it's a hassle to be nonstandard. In a "compatibility"-situation, patents and certain forms of copyrights are extremely harmful to the economic system. It would be very interesting to see economists study this factor and its implication in the world of today, rather than tell fairy tales that are meant to convince us that VHS, QWERTY and Windows are good.

QwertySyndrome.


Is it true all speed records were set on non-QWERTY keyboards? Or is this just an urban legend? Then again, for stiff competition, 1 or 2 percent improvement may be enough to justify switching, but not for regular Joe Cubicle.
It may be possible that Dvorak's alternate layout was marginally better -- however, Dvorak's own tests (benchmarks, if you will), were highly suspect, casting doubt on the veracity of the conclusions.

-Care to enlighten us as to what was wrong with Dvorak's tests? Why can the Dvorak keyboard only be 'marginally' better? Because you say so?

Incidentally, VHS beat Beta for one reason: Beta tapes couldn't hold an entire movie. In terms of quality, they were virtually identical (not surprising, given that used the same technology of rotating heads on a magnetic tape) Somewhere around here, if I remember correctly, a rough concensus was reached that alternative keyboards are roughly about 5% better. This is enough to make a difference in contests, but not for typical "cubicle" work.

5% ? Really? What if I told you that around here, a rough concensus was reached that the earth is flat?

If you have evidence that supersedes consensus anecdotes (higher on the EvidenceTotemPole), I'd like to see it.


speed records

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dvorak_Simplified_Keyboard claims that few people knew about the Dvorak keyboard "prior to the publication of the Barbara Blackburn's achievement of 212 wpm using a Dvorak keyboard in the Guinness Book of Records in 1985."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Words_per_minute mentions that "As of 2005, Barbara Blackburn is the fastest typist in the world, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. Using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, she has maintained 150 wpm for 50 minutes ..."

Is that a typo, or has the same person maintained the world speed record from 1985 to 2005 ?

People never use QWERTY keyboards or Dvorak keyboards to type the text you see when your television has "closed captioning" turned on. They use a stenotype keyboard.

Are the court reporter stenotype keyboards the same as the closed-captioning stenotype keyboards?

Don't those require special training? Plus, court steno machines are mostly phonetic if I am not mistaking. The purpose is to record spoken language, where visual spelling is a matter of interpretion and not something that needs to be recorded for that domain. Its a DomainSpecificLanguage that takes advantage of the fact that written spelling is irrelevant to the domain. Some similar machines (non-court) also use customized dictionaries for domain-specific shorthand. It may be comparable to the McDonalds register menu: put an icon of each product so that the cashier can simply press an icon button. I imagine that something like Microsoft Intellisense on a big touch-screen may also be viable. One hand could select the starting letter(s) and the other hand select the top-frequency-sorted matches from a list(s).

Court reporters tend to use chording keyboards. Instead of a roughly 1:1 mapping between characters and keystrokes, different combinations of keys produce different outputs. They are very fast but they do require special training. The other advantage for some people is that 5 keys are enough, so you can use them with one hand and you never have to move the fingers off the keys. Divers, for eg, find that rather helpful. (See [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chord_keyset]) Cheers, BenAveling

{Perhaps this is diverging, or at least a branch topic. What most are interested in is "dedicated letter" keyboard comparisons. Does RaceTheDamnedCar favor Dvorak over QWERTY?}
(Discussion in BadKeyboards.)

CategoryKeyboard

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