Key bored?

The standard QWERTY layout of the English language typing keyboard has been much debated by economists as an example of sub-optimal design achieving commercial success due to “path dependence” – a series of arbitrary yet defining historical events. Paul David started the ball rolling back in 1985 with this famous article on the ‘economics of QWERTY’:

A path—dependent sequence of economic changes is one of which important influences upon the eventual outcome can be exerted by temporally remote events, including happen-stance dominated by chance elements rather than systematic forces.

What this amounts to is that it proved more effective for the keyboard market to stick with a widely-used second rate design dating from the late 19th century, even though there have been abundant opportunities to change to more optimal formats such as the Dvorak. Here’s David again:

The precise details of timing in the developmental sequence had made it privately profitable in the short run to adapt machines to the habits of men (or to women, as was increasingly the case) rather than the other way around. And things have been that way ever since.

But this path dependence doesn’t stop people trying to improve this little bit of language tech. Here is an interesting experiment in keyboard design for English based not on standard ergonomic tests, but on getting an evolutionary algorithm to find the optimal layout by feeding it a corpus of English words. (via FutureFeeder).

And while we’re at it, don’t miss this ultimate keyboard layout jollified with a multilingual name – Das Keyboard for “ubergeeks”.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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