People naively assume that good ideas win out and that they certainly would in the age of the internet. However, innovations have to compete against established incumbents that have to be pried out of their position of dominance. For anyone who thinks good ideas win out, try looking down at your keyboard. Here’s an excerpt from Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations on that topic.
Nondiffusion of the QWERTY keyboard
Most individuals who write on a computer do not realize that their fingers tap out words on a keyboard that is known as “QWERTY,” named after the first six keys on the upper row of letters. The QWERTY keyboard is intentionally inefficient and awkward. This keyboard takes twice as long to learn as it should and makes us work about twenty times harder than necessary. But QWERTY has persisted since 1873, and today unsuspecting individuals are taught to use the QWERTY keyboard, unaware that a much more efficient keyboard is available. In recent years of talking about the QWERTY keyboard with hundreds of large audiences, the present author has never encountered anyone who uses an alternative. Where did QWERTY come from? Why does it persist in the face of much more efficient alternative keyboard designs? QWERTY was invented by Christopher Latham Sholes, who designed this keyboard to slow down typists. In his day, the type bars on a typewriter hung down in a sort of basket and pivoted up to strike the paper; then they fell back into place by gravity. When two adjoining keys were struck rapidly in succession, they jammed. Sholes rearranged the keys on a typewriter keyboard to minimize such jamming; he “anti-engineered” the letter arrangement in order to make the most commonly used letter sequences awkward. By thus making it difficult for a typist to operate the machine and slowing down typing speed, Sholes’s QWERTY keyboard allowed early typewriters to operate with a minimum of jamming. His design was then used in the manufacture of all typewriters. Early typewriter salesmen could impress customers by pecking out “TYPEWRITER” as all of the letters necessary to spell this word were found in the top row (QWERTYUIOP) of the machine. Prior to 1900, most typists used the two-finger, hunt-and-peck system. Later, as touch typing became popular, dissatisfaction with the QWERTY typewriter began to grow. Typewriters became mechanically more efficient, and the QWERTY keyboard design was no longer necessary to prevent jamming. The search for an improved design was led by Professor August Dvorak at the University of Washington, who in 1932 used time-and-motion studies to create a much more efficient keyboard arrangement. Dvorak filmed people while they were typing and spent a decade analyzing which operations slowed them down. The Dvorak keyboard has the letters A, O, E, U, I, D, H, T, N, and S across the home row of the typewriter (Figure 1– 1). Less frequently used letters were placed on the upper and lower rows of keys. About 70 percent of typing is done on the home row, 22 percent on the upper row, and 8 percent on the lower row. On the Dvorak keyboard, the amount of work assigned to each finger is proportionate to its skill and strength. Further, Professor Dvorak engineered his keyboard so that successive keystrokes fell on alternative hands; thus, while a finger on one hand is stroking a key, a finger on the other hand can be moving into position to hit the next key. Typing rhythm is thus facilitated; this hand alternation was achieved by putting the vowels (which represent 40 percent of all letters typed) on the left-hand side and the major consonants that usually accompany these vowels on the right-hand side of the keyboard. Professor Dvorak was thus able to avoid the typing inefficiencies of the QWERTY keyboard. For instance, QWERTY overloads the left hand, which must type 57 percent of ordinary copy. The Dvorak keyboard shifts this emphasis to 56 percent on the stronger right hand and 44 percent on the weaker left hand (for a right-hander, as are 90 percent of the public). Only 32 percent of typing is done on the home row with the QWERTY system, compared to 70 percent with the Dvorak keyboard. The newer arrangement requires less jumping back and forth from row to row. With the QWERTY keyboard, an efficient typist’s fingertips travel more than twelve miles a day, jumping from row to row. These unnecessary, intricate movements cause mental tension and carpal tunnel syndrome and lead to more typographical errors. Typists typing on the Dvorak keyboard have broken all speed records.
Figure 1-1 The Dvorak keyboard is much more efficient for typists than the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed more than a century ago to slow down typists so as to prevent the jamming of keys on early typewriters. Yet almost no one has adopted the Dvorak keyboard. Superior technological innovations do not necessarily diffuse themselves.
One might expect, on the basis of its overwhelming advantages, that the Dvorak keyboard would have completely replaced the inferior QWERTY keyboard. On the contrary, after more than seventy years, almost all typists still use the inefficient QWERTY keyboard. Even though the American National Standards Institute and the Equipment Manufacturers Association have approved the Dvorak keyboard as an alternate design, it is still almost impossible to find a typewriter or a computer keyboard that is arranged in the more efficient layout. Vested interests are involved in hewing to the old design: manufacturers, sales outlets, typing teachers, and typists themselves. Unbeknown to most computer users, their machine that comes equipped with a QWERTY keyboard can easily be switched to a Dvorak keyboard. Nevertheless, a considerable effort, estimated at about a week’s training, is required for someone accustomed to the QWERTY design to become proficient on a Dvorak keyboard. Here we see that technological innovations are not always diffused and adopted rapidly, even when the innovation has obvious advantages. As the reader may have guessed by now, the present book was typed on a QWERTY keyboard.