Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 6: Mobile phones and rocket science

As the millennium aged disgracefuly, the market for personal communications technology grew ever ravenous. Computers had become standard in business and it was the early adopters of digital technologies who kept ahead of the game. So too (in the affluent west, at least) the personal home computer had become commonplace.

Constant connectivity and the text revolution

Yet another notable advancement in communications technology began in 1983 when the cell phone, aka mobile phone, entered the market. These devices offered an unprecedented capability – constant connectivity.

In the beginning, the mobile phone allowed uses to make calls, just like the landlines with which we were already familiar. It was in the 1993 that SMS or Short Messaging Service technology was developed. Thusly it was that the text revolution had begun!

The witch is dead!

It will please you to know, dear reader, that at last QWERTY was gone! The keypads for early mobile phones were simple – usually consisting of a numeric keypad, a pound and asterisk button, and a call and end button.

Mobile phones with numeric keypads were typically operated using one hand and the thumb to push the buttons. During 1990’s and early noughties the market snowballed and the technology advanced rapidly, with innovations such as the dictionary and autocorrect functions, enabling words to be entered with single button presses.

Users became very proficient in the use of these tools, owing to the simplicity of the 9 grid keypad. The keypad was so usable that typically school students were able to type with one hand under the desk during class.

Not you again

Alas, ‘twas in the year 1996 that the antihero of our tale (the QWERTY keyboard) was resuscitated. Tiny physical QWERTY keyboards were introduced for use in mobile devices – beginning with the Nokia 9000 communicator.

QWERTY appeared more frequently as mobile technology evolved. In 2002 the first smart phones were released, and mobile phones became mobile work stations, allowing users to access email, write documents and so forth.

The QWERTY keyboard had been formerly operated with two hands/10 digits and was sized suitably – about 30 cm long, with each key being a reasonable size for the adult fingertip. Yet the same layout was strangely migrated to mobile technology, squishing the keyboard into an area less than a third the size formerly deemed usable.

Of course the result of shrinking the keyboard was that accuracy took great fall. It was impossible to type a message without pressing multiple keys at the same time – and that was for those whose eye sight was good enough to actually see them.

I mean really, it’s not rocket science, is it?


Will developers wake up and smell the roses? Find out in The Dirt on QWERTY: Sweet but not swift.

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability