The revenge of QWERTY

Smart designers are asking why QWERTY keyboard layouts still exist on modern mobile devices.

@mezzoblue Yep. Especially on smartphones where we don’t have decades of legacy muscle memory.— Mike Davidson (@mikeindustries) June 25, 2014

For a while now, I’ve been thinking that QWERTY actually does make sense on phones in a way that it never did on desktop keyboards.

My Dvorak-using friends like Matt Mullenweg rave about how much faster they can type, since their keyboards aren’t subject to the flaws of QWERTY. Legend has it that the QWERTY layout was purposefully designed to be inefficient to slow typists down. The correction to the legend says that it was designed to prevent typebars from striking each other and locking up, putting commonly-used character combinations on opposite sides of the keyboard so the first typebar would be well out of the way before the second one came flying in to strike the ribbon to the page.

(The correction to the correction says the layout came from the days of the telegraph, long before typebars. But let’s just agree that QWERTY is a good way to keep typebars from jamming.)

My mother owned antique shops in the ’80s, so I’ve had access to some pretty old typewriters. I remember using ones with typebars. It was incredibly easy to cause them to jam. Here’s a video of them in action:

If you’ve used one of those, I bet you could smell the ribbon ink while watching that video.

I’ll agree that a QWERTY layout — arguably designed to keep typebars from striking each other — made little sense in the era of electric typewriters where all the characters were on a spinning ball or on desktop computers which were completely unmechanical. But wouldn’t QWERTY make perfect sense on smartphone keyboards? If you’re typing on a narrow mobile device, then your left and right thumbs are effectively the 21st century equivalent of typebars. Maybe QWERTY is what keeps your thumbs from getting tangled.


Published by Brian Alvey

I build software that makes creative people more powerful.

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