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KALQ Vs. QWERTY: The Search For A Better Keyboard

An iPad user types on a virtual QWERTY keyboard. (Here & Now)

Here & Now intern Tizzy Brown demonstrates using the iPad’s virtual QWERTY keyboard. (Here & Now)

The QWERTY layout of the keyboard has existed for more than 100 years. But in the age of smart phones and tablets, is it time for a redesign?

Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Montana Tech  have come up with a new layout, called KALQ, which is designed to make it easier to type with your thumbs.

The KALQ keyboard layout. (Max Planck Institute)

The KALQ keyboard layout. (Max Planck Institute)

The researchers based their design on an optimization algorithm that considered criteria like thumb movement, button size and the arrangement of letters.

They claim the new keyboard arrangement increases typing speed by 34 percent.

Jimmy Stamp, who writes for Smithsonian Magazine’s Design Decoded blog, says the traditional QWERTY keyboard is a vestige of a different era.

“The dominant theory is that it was created as a way to prevent mechanical failures,” Stamp told Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti. “These early typewriters were elaborate mechanisms … and they were really quite beautiful in that 19th century, industrial, baroque kind of way.”

Debate Over QWERTY Design Origins

As Stamp dug into the topic, he discovered another theory: Researchers at Kyoto University in Japan argue the QWERTY keyboard was developed with telegraph operators in mind — the first clients for typewriters.

The initial typewriter was arranged in alphabetical order and shown to a telegraph college in Chicago in 1868. A few other improvements included moving vowels to the upper row and arranging letters in an optimal way for correcting mistakes.

For example, in American Morse code, the letters S (···) and E (·) together can be easily confused with the letter Z (· · · _ ·), so it would make sense for the letters S, E and Z to be close together.

Old Designs In New Technology

There are many vestiges of the old design in new technology. For example, Apple e-readers mimic page turns, and the calendars are “leather-bound.”

It turns out there is a word for these vestigial design elements: skeuomorphism.

“That basically describes when something has outlived its purpose but it’s incorporated into a design for a few reasons, perhaps to orient its users into an unfamiliar technology,” Stamp explained.

Starting From Scratch

Stamp is curious as to what someone who has never really used a keyboard could create for a tablet interface.

Perhaps it would completely forgo the keyboard, he suggests, and rely on handwriting, speech or even thoughts.

But after all his research, Stamp said he will stick to QWERTY.

“I am so attached to it,” he said.

Guest:


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  • J Frog

    Also coming soon, the switch to Celcius, Metric and Esparanto.

  • MrBillG59

    What ever happened to Dvorak?

    Oh, you have to learn how to TYPE to be able to take advantage of it.

    What’s wrong with learning a new skill, people.

    • Cat

      Yeah. I would be more than happy to go for the most efficient new keyboard layout.

      There is no sense in having QWERTY which was designed to make typing SLOWER, so people typing at typewriters did not jam up the type-bars [the letter whacking thingys].So stupid to have this keyboard layout in the computer age.

  • LN S

    I predict millions of thumb and connecting hand joint conditions arising in a few years….

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      i was thinking that it will be a huge problem with all the texting and video games they play all day

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    it has to be more efficient to type with all your fingers rather than just the thumbs

    • Dataninja

      Forget typing, just do Video chats for everything!

      Like, why have YOU type a weather report when we have your great VIDEO weather report!

      http://youtu.be/yN2_5jlpMFM

      Typing is for old people?

      • J__o__h__n

        It is faster to read a written weather report (where I can just read the info I want) than to watch a video.  Writing is usually more concise and better thought out than recorded speech (or at least if it isn’t you can skim through it faster). 

  • Dennis

    S is …
    E is .
    Z is –..
    What’s the link?

    • Rachel Rohr, Here & Now

      Hi Dennis, 
      Z is — — · · in international Morse code, but in obsolete American Morse code, Z was · · · _ · which explains why it looked similar to S (· · ·) and E (·) together. Thanks for listening! 

  • Chupallama

    Aaagh!  No thanks I’ve already had to learn both QWERTY and AZERTY for touch typing/keyboarding, and other interfaces (Netflix, for instance) use a keyboard that’s in alphabetical order.  I’m not remotely interested in learning a fourth keyboard layout.

  • Arudy

    Is there a keyboard coming for those of us who type with our feet?

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