January 23, 2019


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Early struggles with QWERTY

Early struggles with QWERTY

Recently I described how the English language keyboard format QWERTY had been wrongly maligned as an “accident of history” and was instead a brilliant engineering solution to a particularly tricky technical problem of its day.  But is it also really seriously “inefficient” and “inferior” as the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman argues in his first year economics textbook with Robin Wells? I had a chance to counter-argue (and see) some other sides of that argument for myself when I gave an invited talk on “the QWERTY Problem” to the Business School faculty at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington last week.

The standard story on the supposed inferiority of QWERTY is based on the argument that it proved inferior in terms of typing speed when tested against an alternative format invented by Augustus Dvorak in 1936.  It should first be pointed out that the argument in favour of Dvorak has been hotly contested for some time (e.g. Liebowitz and Margolis, 1990), but what is also often overlooked is that the Dvorak format was invented in an era when typing was largely a specialised task often carried out in typing pools dedicated to the activity.  Any increase in typing speed there would directly translate into an increase in labour (typist) productivity of comparable magnitude.  But typing pools have largely gone, while the art of touch typing (which Dvorak was designed for) is by some accounts also now a dying art.

Further, today those who type (including but not exclusively secretaries) typically also have many administrative and managerial tasks other than typing. Even if Dvorak could increase productivity in the specific task of typing, its impact is diffused and diminished to the extent that this is now only one of many elements in labour productivity.

And other technological developments and needs in recent years such as text inputting in hand-held devices raise issues which positively conflict with Dvorak’s rationale based around ten finger touch typing.  The North Carolina link? During my talk the Head of the Economics department there quickly accessed the Internet on his hand-held device to confirm how many words in English involved the letter pair “HB” found on the QWERTY typebasket, visually demonstrating the point I was making at the same time.

In short, if Dvorak did possess any potential efficiency advantages over QWERTY in 1936, the evidence is that these advantages have either been eliminated or dissipated over the intervening years.

Does all this matter? Yes it does, because QWERTY is not just (literally) a textbook case of a supposed historical error that has saddled us with an inferior standard, it is also still used today by policy and law makers to argue the need for government intervention in the setting of technological standards. But while the case for such intervention may exist, QWERTY itself does not make that case.  If governments had intervened to force or induce companies and individuals to switch from QWERTY to Dvorak, today we would almost certainly be asking why the system had to go through the trauma of such changes for temporary (and possibly illusory) gains. We may be stuck with QWERTY for good or ill, but at least in this case the solution that the market (and entrepreneurship) threw up may not be so bad after all.

Krugman P., and Wells R. (2006) Economics; New York, Worth Publishers
Liebowitz, S. J., and Margolis, S. E. (1990) The fable of the keys; Journal of Law and Economics, 33, 1-25

(Professor Kay’s paper on “the QWERTY problem” will be presented at the 35th DRUID Celebration Conference 2013, Barcelona, Spain, June 17-19, and is available for download here)