My Turn

To Qwerty or Not to Qwerty

Jason Lo - 2001.10.08

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Is it butchery to take apart a perfectly working Mac and rebuild it for your own needs? (I'm not talking about trashing a compact Mac and making a *gasp* Macquarium!)

No, no, this is much more sinister - I'm talking about removing the keys from my perfectly serviceable iceBook and putting them back in the wrong order! Of course I'm talking about changing the keyboard from Qwerty to another configuration, specifically to Dvorak.

Dvorak, as most enlightened users will know, is a superior keyboard combination which allows much faster typing speeds than Qwerty. Qwerty was developed after it was found that the original keyboard layout caused the hammers on mechanical typewriters to jam because the operator typed much too quickly! Qwerty was created to slow the typist.

Unlike most computer users, I have used non-Qwerty configurations before, and, although it took a while to learn, it has become quite natural. During my final year at university, I built a wearable computer for my dissertation, which required some sort of input device other than a trackball. The standard keyboard, it seems, amongst the MIT academics who possessed wearable computers, was the Twiddler controller, a one handed multikeyed device which also incorporated a tilting mouse controller. I wanted one. However, the price of the controller seemed too steep for my meager student means, so I searched and found an alternative. I ordered a CyKey keyboard, based on the concept of MicroWriting, a chording keyboard with seven keys - and half the price of the Twiddler.

Well, let me tell you, the first few days of using the chords of the CyKey were pretty much hell. I enforced upon myself the routine of using the CyKey for all my word processing, browsing, data entry - everything - but it didn't work out quite that way. I would eventually, after a matter of minutes, yank out the CyKey and plug in the Qwerty, ignoring the pangs of failure poking at my conscience. It took me two weeks of intensive use for me to become proficient at using the chording keyboard, meaning I no longer had to look up key combinations from the manual, and I was attaining a workable typing speed that didn't impinge on what I was typing. Still, I was only getting a maximum of 20 words a minute - deathly slow, as I can touch type at about 36 wpm.

However, one had to place into context the use of the keyboard. One handed use meant I could use my left hand for other purposes, but it would inevitably slow down my typing average as one of my appendages was removed form the equation. The fact that I was probably reaching as fast a speed as I could attain on the one handed keyboard is testimony that the standard of Qwerty is not the one and only.

Thus far I haven't encountered any mass consumerism of Dvorak keyboards, despite the availability of the switchable keyboard, nor is it looking too likely to happen in the near future. However, there is always the option to remove the keycaps of your keyboard and replace them in the Dvorak arrangement, remembering to setup the keyboard layout in the OS.

Does this invalidate the Apple warranty? Probably, but you can always refit them in the Qwerty layout if you ever have to send it in for warranty service. Besides, the first Mac I ever bought, a Performa 630, came with the Dvorak layout file installed in the System, although I never tested it.

So why is it I want to rearrange the keys on my brand new iBook? I want to try Dvorak. Is it really a faster typing layout? Is it just as easy to learn as Qwerty? This is what I want to discover. In reality, I'll get an external USB keyboard and reconfigure the keys rather than pull all the little white keys off my iBook (they're fiddly!) - at least until Mac OS X supports Dvorak.

How is this ever going to benefit me other than (perhaps) a greater typing speed? There is always the satisfaction of knowing that I dare to Think Different.

P.S. Does anyone know how to switch keyboard layouts in Mac OS X?

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