The Keyboard Blog.

A detailed history of keyboards through the ages

KALQ: The future of typing?

Despite its inability to loosen QWERTY's firm grip on the typing world, one must laud the efforts of the Dvorak layout to rework an outmoded typing system for a more modern age.

Perhaps we should thus take notice of KALQ, a new keyboard layout which has been designed from the ground up to increase typing speeds on touchscreen devices.

It attempts to achieve this by "[maximizing] the number of alternate-thumb keystrokes... and [minimizing] overall 'thumb travel' distance". This means that the keyboard is split in two, one part for each thumb. Accordingly, each segment has a blank key which acts as a space bar.

Interesting stuff indeed. Have you had a chance to try KALQ yet? Has it transformed your typing life entirely?

Will KALQ let us type faster?

Hit me up on Twitter to let me know what you think!

SPARKLY: A valiant effort to kill fat-finger errors

Errors caused by the user typing the incorrect series of keys are known as "fat-finger errors". Most of the time, such errors can be corrected with a few taps of the "undo" button - but in the fast-moving world of trading, fat-finger errors that fly under the radar can lose an entire fortune.

Researchers invented the now-infamous SPARKLY keyboard layout in 2005 in an attempt to make traders think twice about what they were typing. It stands out as being one of the few layouts that intentionally made life harder for the user!

You can see a diagram of the layout below:

The ill-fated SPARKLY keyboard layout

Look familiar? It should, as it's the good old QWERTY layout but with each letter key swapped with its alphabetical opposite. So A maps to Z, B maps to Y and so on.

But that's not all: the user had to press a special key combination (Ctrl+Shift+M, if I remember rightly) before they could even start typing, just to make doubly sure their input was intentional!

SPARKLY had its intended effect: fat-finger errors were reduced by 85% according to one study. Unfortuntately, however, the very same study demonstrated that it caused typing speeds to drop by such a large margin that the money lost to inefficient working dwarfed any saved through the avoidance of errors.

SPARKLY's creators on seeing its performance results

For that reason, SPARKLY was confined to the history books and can only be found on the long-forgotten SPARK-2910 line of workstation computers.

Dvorak enters the ring

Sorry for the delay, keyboard fans! I've had a big project on at work lately that's been sucking up 100% of my "processing power", so to speak. Not to fear: your regularly scheduled programme will now be resuming...

Let me paint you a picture, dear reader:

King QWERTY languishes on his golden throne, watching over the empire of loyal subjects that spreads before him, as far as the eye can see.

But what's that? Maidens cry in fear as a bloodied scout limps desperately through the castle keep. He brings to his King a most dreaded message: there is a rival claim to his throne.

The King stands, towering over the scout, disbelief and trepidation filling his eyes. Before he can act, a tall shadow blocks out the sun behind him. He swivels to face his challenger.

Before the King stands a tall warrior clad in black. For a time he is silent, matching the King's piercing stare. And then, in a booming roar that causes the earth to shake, he bellows a single word...


QWERTY faces its challenger

That's right, today we reach that most dramatic of chapters in keyboard history: the advent of the Dvorak keyboard layout.

In 1936, Dr August Dvorak set out to replace the already-ubiquitous QWERTY with a layout that had been designed from the ground-up to offer a faster typing speed, unburdened by the historic limitations enforced by the transcription of Morse code. Dvorak wanted to avoid the awkward finger motions required to type common combinations of letters, and shift more of the typing work to the right hand, which is dominant in most humans. The final designs were directed by empirical studies in letter frequencies and the physiology of human hands.

Despite its good intentions, the Dvorak design failed to gain any ground. To this day there are some avid Dvorak users, but recent research suggests that the claimed efficiency improvements of the revised layout were massively exaggerated from the start, making the recruitment of former-QWERTY users to the Dvorak cause an even more arduous task.

In an attempt to make Dvorak appear less foreign, its design goals were re-addressed by Shai Coleman to create the Colemak layout, something of a middle-ground between Dvorak and QWERTY. Again, however, its uptake was limited to a small fraction of users.

The King sizes up his opponent and twists his large mouth into a menacing grin. He unsheathes his broadsword and waits for the combatant to approach.

The trespasser's feeble jabs are effortlessly deflected by the King. Unwilling to spend a perfectly good morning in the midst of combat when he could be drinking wine and watching the jester's latest tricks, he catches the unwelcome warrior off-guard and rams his sword through the poor man's chest.

Dvorak looks up into QWERTY's unrelenting stare and, with his dying breath, utters,

"You may have defeated me... but I will always have a more efficient selection of letters on my home row."

King QWERTY turns with a sigh and sits back down in his throne.

QWERTY: A legend is born

Those user studies from the previous chapter were critical in the design of the now-ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard layout, whose initially unintuitive arrangement of keys was borne of the need to make the conversion of Morse code as rapid as possible, placing letters close to each other if their Morse code representations were similar so that the operator could switch from one to the other more quickly as soon as the correct conversion became clear.

Sholes, its creator, continued to redesign the layout of the keyboard thereafter, although the continued prevalence of QWERTY demonstrates that none of the subsequent iterations took off.

In 1910 the QWERTY layout was adopted by Teletype, which produced a very popular and influential line of electronic typewriters (and, later, computer terminals) - further solidifying the layout's reign in regions that used the Latin alphabet.

As we shall soon see, however, the popular layout did not continue to reign unchallenged...

Humble beginnings: The alphabetical typewriter

To most, the outmoded technology of the typewriter is a forgotten relic of a less convenient age.

But to the (despairingly) few like myself who don't immediately shun old technology as soon as it is replaced by something newer, the more "mature" ancestors of current technology hold a certain charm that is impossible to ignore.

The prime example of this is the grandfather of modern computer keyboards - the typewriter, the brainchild of inventor Christopher Latham Sholes.

In the very early days, typewriters had two piano-esque rows of keys in alphabetical order - those interested (surely all of you?! :-) can even see the original patent application here.

What should have been an intuitive and efficient keyboard layout turned out to be anything but: telegraph operators, brought in to test the machine before it reached mass production, found the layout confusing when transcribing Morse code. According to a 2011 study by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka, it was this fact, and not the often-thrown-around myth of keen users typing too quickly for the machine to cope, that tanked the alphabetical layout.

This limitation led to a ground-up layout redesign which made Morse code transcription much less fraught, and still prevails in computer keyboards today.

*nervous mic tap* Hello... and welcome!

Hello, fellow keyboard enthusiasts, and welcome to The Keyboard Blog! :-)

Come on in, make yourselves feel at home and sip on this warm mug of cocoa. Together we're about to set sail on a voyage (or should that be luxury cruise?) through the vivid and varied history of computer keyboard layouts, from their humble beginnings in the typewriter age all the way to their futuristic descendants.

Me right now

Slippers on? Sitting comfortably? Then let's go!