The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 1: The typewriter goes wronger

Today, the ubiquitous QWERTY system is recognized as the standard for keyboards and touchscreen keypads, but why is this so?wtf1 While literally billions of us use the system, few ask the question “why QWERTY?” – and fewer still can answer.

Is it ‘just the way it is’? Was QWERTY designed to make typing faster, as is oft the reason put forward? Hardly. In fact, the QWERTY system was designed to make typing SLOWER. That’s right, dear reader, QWERTY was not designed for your typing convenience.

Now let us take a brief jaunt into the murky past to get to the bottom of the QWERTY conundrum…

Where it all began

The first typewriter was patented by a fellow by the name of Christopher Sholes in 1867. The letters were arranged in a common sense intuitive order – good old ALPHABETICAL order.

qwert These mechanical devices required buttons to be pressed which would activate levers that in turn would press metal heads to paper, thus imprinting the characters.

A brilliant invention, yet a design flaw became quickly apparent. When users typed too fast, the levers were inclined to jam, requiring typists to continually untangle a mess of jammed levers. Such a vexation was this for typists, that the device needed to be redesigned.

typewriter_jam In 1870 the original layout was slightly reconfigured. The vowels were raised to a separate level, as were the numbers, leaving two rows of consonants. . In terms of the jamming issue, the layout proved superior to its alphabetic predecessor, but not by a lot.

Then, in 1873, the design was completely recombobulated. The QWERTY keyboard, as we know it today, was developed by E. Remington and Sons, based on the design previously patented by Sholes. The QWERTY design effectively reduced the jamming problems by separating the commonly used letters thus separately the levers.

The QWERTY layout also allowed salesmen to impress buyers by demonstrating typing the word “TYPEWRITER” on just the top row. How cute.

Whilst the QWERTY configuration was a marvellous triumph over a mechanical problem, the side-effects were dull, dull, dull. Firstly, typing speed was slowed down, and secondly, the illogical array of letters made learning to type something of a nightmare. Here’s a poorly rendered graphic to illustrate my point:


2012 – QWERTY? WTF?

Leaping forward in time to the present day, you may notice that there ain’t too many levers on your touchscreen devices.

So, dear astute and curious reader, would this not beg the question “why are we still using QWERTY?”?

IMGP0527 So why ARE we still using QWERTY? Find out why as the story continues in The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 2: The typists’ ball.

Pandora Karavan

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

Quaint, but no banana

So you have lashed out and purchased your lovely new iPad, and it’s love, so naturally you’re seek ways to make it truly yours. You want to instil upon the device an expression of your own unique personality – a kind of consumerist bonding ritual, perhaps.

There are a plethora of accessories on the market, from covers in an almost infinite array of colours and designs to an overwhelming choice of stickers, faux crystals and the like. Since the boom of mobile technology, designers are presenting us with an ever-expanding choice of accoutrements – their inventiveness escalating by the day.

Check out this très novel device – it mods your 21st century tablet into a mechanical typewriter of yesteryear.

While there is an undeniable charm to the retro design, would this kitsch apparatus add value to your iPad in terms of functionality as a text input device?

Sorry hipsters – quaint, but no banana.

No doubt the initial novelty of imagining oneself to be a 17th century author would lose its shine quite quickly – perhaps in the time it takes to upload an enigmatic picture of you with it, treated with just the right retro filter. The device would then gather dust on the shelf along with the Box Brownie and other charming objet d’art.

You see, the world has made giant leaps since the typewriter in terms of technological advancement – the mechanical has become digital, facilitating a logarithmic increase in functionality.

If you know your history, the letters of the typewriter are in that seemingly random order because typists of the day became too fast and the printing mechanisms became stuck. The mechanical problem was solved by separating the most frequently used letters as much as possible. That’s right – it was a move to slow typists down.

The fact is, the conception of the QWERTY keyboard was not motivated by the need for optimal usability, but by the need to solve a mechanical problem.

Funny thing is, although keyboards are no longer mechanical, we have inherited the QWERTY keyboard from this device manufactured in seventeenth century. The continuing unthinking adoption of the QWERTY system is the technological equivalent to an aberrant gene, and successive generations are inflicted with it.

We are being lavished with more devices and apps than we can eat, yet we can only await the evolution of text input technology with giddy anticipation.


Filed under Fun, Hardware, Interfaces, Usability

Research In Stasis: The Demise Of BlackBerry

Blackberry is dying. Research In Motion (RIM), known for manufacturing the mobile devices characterized by distinctive and inflexible QWERTY keypads, is reportedly contemplating a company reorganization that could see 2,000 to 6,000 jobs eliminated, albeit it also predicts savings of $1 billion a year. This is pretty much indicative of a company with one foot in the grave.

Like the QWERTY keypad, RIM has gone from a symbol of business, professionalism and power to a sign of inflexibility and lack of imagination. The company has pretty much gone from the top of the food chain to something akin to krill.

So what caused Blackberry’s fall?

First off, it’s a big old fossil. It still markets email, for crying out loud. Although email does still count as a huge part of every person’s online experience, most people today only sign up for it as a gateway service, since it’s required to sign up for social networking and other services.

Another indication of its nature as big old dinosaur is the fact that the Blackberry devices today still look pretty much like their counterparts from years ago. Their failure to make a proper and definitive move from the QWERTY-dominated design definitely cost them customers. More often than not, QWERTY keypads require both hands to type and a spare hand is just not something the multi-tasking professional wants to let go of in this day and age.

Blackberry is also based on the premise that serious business people want serious business phones. What the company failed to anticipate is that the emotionless and efficient robot army they predicted would rule the corporate world hasn’t been designed yet. Human beings still comprise their market and human beings are still prone to desire individuality and fun.

Even though Blackberry may have managed to make deals with companies to issue serious business mobile devices to their employees, most people still prefer to use devices that let them hang loose and play from time to time.

QWERTY killed Blackberry; that and a lack of imagination.



Filed under Mobile

Kids these days…

Phone Generations


Filed under Fun, Interfaces, Mobile

Wingz SmartKeyboard: Will It Fly?

I haven’t covered keyboards lately, so I thought it was high time I did. I discovered the Wingz SmartKeyboard while browsing Kickstarter. It’s designed to solve the usbaility issue of texting on a touchscreen.

Wingz SmartKeyboard

Wingz SmartKeyboard

Wingz can connect as a bluetooth keyboard to a tablet or smartphone. But it’s also a “mobile device” itself — since the touchscreen panel at the middle actually runs on Android. You can actually stick a sim card in there to make calls and send texts.

While this is one way to solve the keyboard problem of touchscreen devices, I still think that lugging around yet another “too big for my pocket” device is a step back from mobility. And what would be the advantage of this over a Bluetooth keyboard?

I personally own an Apple Wireless Keyboard, the slimmest such device around, and even I don’t carry it around often. I tried carrying it around to pair with my iPad for writing on the go but the two device combo just doesn’t work well in actual usage. I just conceded defeat and bring a laptop when I need some writing done.

As an accessory, I would put Wingz on the same shelf as the Bluetooth headset, the external USB numeric keypad and the touchscreen stylus. It’s possibly useful for some people but for most it’s too much of a fiddle.

As a companion to a tablet or smartphone, I don’t think yet another device is the answer and certainly not one as expensive as this ($240). Every mobile device already has the best input method available: its own screen. It’s not tactile but it is very portable. So I guess the problem really is software and not hardware. Let’s stick to making virtual keyboards better first.

So does Wingz have the wings to fly? It’s certainly crashed and burned on Kickstarter – not even raising 1% of it’s $54K target.


Filed under Hardware, Interfaces, Mobile

Siine Keyboard. When Words Fail Me.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, how many words does a pictogram speak?

Not many, it seems. Meet Siine: QWERTY plus pictograms. Its value proposition is that you’ll take less taps to write out a phrase or sentence than a normal keyboard. Less taps maybe, but a helluva LOT more time — since you’ll spend ages browsing its  library of pictograms to find the right icon.

See, you really can type out multiple words just by tapping on different icons or by tapping on a single one multiple times. BUT you’ll either waste too much time fiddling with your message (scratch that, maybe this word is better) or discovering new stuff on the keyboard (ooh, what happens if I tap this one more time?). At one point, I totally lost my train of thought while scrolling thru the icons in the menu.

To make matters worse, they’ve even attached a marketplace to the keyboard itself called the Siine Gallery where you can download even more pictogram sets. Hooray, more icons to waylay me from typing and getting things done!

Granted, the icons are somewhat of a feature that’s tucked away to the side and you still have the QWERTY for back up, right? Wrong. The standard keyboard itself sucks big time. The return key isn’t in the usual place and the backspace doesn’t register long presses for continuous deletion.

In my honest opinion, Siine is more a toy than a keyboard. I really don’t want my keyboard distracting me from the serious job of converting my thoughts into words. I’m having a hard time as it is thinking without having my own keyboard getting in my way.

If you want to try it out though, you’re welcome to download it from the Android Market here or just check out their demo video:

YouTube Preview Image

So is this keyboard a Siine of the times? Or a Siine of things to come?


Filed under Innovation, Mobile, Usability

HTC Rings Down the Curtain On QWERTY

The touchscreen has finally convinced a major manufacturer that sticking old technology into new devices doesn’t work. That and the fact that market doesn’t seem to be fond of buying these fatter, uglier phones. I know, I know: this is actually about physical keyboards being phased out, regardless if it’s QWERTY or not, but I’ll take it as a win nonetheless.

A QWERTY board on a mobile is just too clunky. No wonder more than one manufacturer has tried to hide it using sliders or by tucking the keyboard out of sight. Even RIM came out with a fully touchscreen phone, despite the BlackBerry brand’s raison d’etre being a physical keyboard. Add to that the stress of having to hit miniscule keys to generate miniscule text on a miniscule screen and you have a recipe for a repetitive injury lawsuit.

But wait, you cry out, how about us folks who are 1000% more productive when using a physical keyboard on our phones?

Sorry folks, it’s called market forces. And a massive migration on a scale never seen before is forcing touch-typers to the margins.

You see, each day, millions of people around the world are joining the touchscreen generation. And the vast majority of them are blissfully ignorant of the QWERTY layout and its quirky foibles. You see, they’ve never owned a computer before. A push-button handphone maybe, but not a PC or latptop. So by adding a physical keyboard with an ancient, cryptic keyboard layout, shrunk down to Mini-Me dimensions, you’re putting a monstrous usability hurdle in their way. These users are opting for sleeker, simpler and more adaptive touchscreen-only phones.

The market has spoken. So far, HTC is the first to listen. Even though QWERTY might still be king, it’s starting to look and smell like Richard the Third.

As people download and try out alternative keyboards via app stores, the market will also start clamoring for physical versions of the better virtual ones. Who knows, Dvorak might finally make headway at last! (Or maybe something even more enlightened and evolved?)

Usability and ergonomics might not be the main reasons why HTC is axing slide-out keyboards but it certainly sends the right signal: Mobile phones need better input mechanisms than the one we inherited from typewriters.

Which keyboard do you prefer on your mobile device: physical slideout or virtual touchscreen?


Filed under Interfaces, Mobile

Letters Like Lego With the W10 Keyboard

I’ve found another unique solution to the QWERTY keyboard problem: the W10 Keyboard.

The W10 Keyboard

If you’re like me and think of letters as individual characters, it might be hard to grasp how this keyboard works. It might help to imagine that each letter itself is made up of a couple of strokes. You assemble a letter by swiping the strokes together (or tapping on them in sequence, if that works better for you).

For example:

  • l + c = k
  • c + j = g
  •     –  = e
  • l + – = r
  • c + j + l + – + – + – + l + c = greek

If it still feels greek to you, this video might help explain the concept better.



The W10 Keyboard adopts the Korean way of texting, which might be familiar to you (or completely alien, depending on what side of the planet you’re on). I’m still wrapping my head around the concept and I’m guessing you are too. I suppose it might work for those not weaned on the Latin alphabet, but for me putting together words using letters is tough enough as it is.

A few of its adopters have sworn to the increased speed and accuracy of their typing though, so I guess it does work as long as you persevere through the daunting learning curve.  And if you want to take a break, you can always cheat by going into landscape mode and using the QWERTY keyboard instead.

If you’re curious and want to try it out, you can get it for free from the Android store here.

Do you think the W10 deserves a 10 for an inspired solution? Or do you give it a 0 for making texting even harder than it already is?


Filed under Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile, Usability

It had to happen: Texting error leads to lockdowns at West Hall middle, high schools

A recipe for disaster:

  1. A usability nightmare: QWERTY on a touchscreen

  2. An algorithm that makes the initial mistake even worse: Auto Correct

  3. Paranoia

As reported in the GainesvilleTimes News:

Texting error leads to lockdowns at West Hall middle, high schools.

Auto correct fail

An auto corrected text message, accidentally sent to the wrong number, was the catalyst to lockdowns Wednesday at West Hall middle and high schools. Just before noon, law enforcement and school officials issued the lockdowns after a West Hall community member reported a threatening text message. The text, saying “gunman be at west hall today,” was received and reported to police around 11:30 a.m. But after police tracked the number, they learned the auto correct feature on the new cellphone changed “gunna” to “gunman.” The message being sent to the wrong number added to the confusion. Read more


Filed under Mobile, Usability

An iPad keyboard that sits on top of my touchscreen… why didn’t I think of that?


This is the first product that actually made me think of trading in my Macbook Air for an iPad. I type pretty fast, the last time I checked it was around 90 wpm, and if there is one terrible compromise in computing over the last 5 years, it’s using a QWERTY keyboard on a touchscreen.

I mean seriously? Isn’t this the 21st century? Thankfully, we have solutions popping up on two fronts: The first, is getting rid of QWERTY and replacing it with something more suited for the touchscreen. And second, is getting rid of the touchscreen part, and bringing QWERTY back to a familiar place.

The latter is the direction that Isaac and Melmon of TouchFire decided to take. I know, I know… there are plenty of USB keyboards, Bluetooth keyboards, and cases with built in keyboards, but if I wanted all that, I would carry around a laptop.

The touchfrire concept is completely different, instead of making something that sits next to the iPad, they made a very simple rubbery overlay that sits on top of the screen — using the touch surface of the iPad as the keyboard itself. This saves a lot of space in your every day carry bag, and also means that there are no batteries or pairing issues… ever!

The beauty of this innovation is that your fingers can actually feel where the keys are – freeing you to look at the screen, not at the keys. Instant tactile feedback – Loving it!

The only downside I can think of is that you’re stuck using a 90 percent scaled keyboard instead of a full sized one, but for those of us on the smaller side of the hand-size spectrum, this is not a major compromise. And it does look a bit fiddly.

So, here are the details: They started out on Kickstarter, which is a platform for funding new ideas by potential buyers and they raised over $200K! Now, you better go pre-order from their website because they’ve already sold out their first production batch.

If you’re sitting in front of an iPad typing on a Touch Fire right now, let us know what you think in the comments, and even if you’ve never heard of it until now, what do you think, yea or nay?

by Elliott Williams


Filed under Innovation, Interfaces