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Modern legacy: QWERTY

Modern legacy: QWERTY

Although modern technology moves forward at a more rapid pace than ever before, there are still plenty of legacy solutions that are resilient enough to stand the test of time. Like digital equivalents of living fossils, they have managed to survive the disruptive effect of technological innovation and still thrive in highly modern IT-environments.

In this series, we will take a closer look at some of these technological dinosaurs that are still present in our modern times. In this article we discuss the QWERTY keyboard layout, a design that has been around for quite a while and doesn’t seem ready for retirement yet.

The origins of QWERTY

QWERTY is the standard typewriter and computer keyboard in countries that use a Latin-based alphabet. The name, which looks and sounds like something a drunken sailor penned down after consuming large quantities of rum, refers to the first six letters of the upper keyboard row.

The story of QWERTY begins with the invention of the first commercial typewriters in the 1870s. The arrangement, devised by the inventive mind of Christopher Latham Sholes, strategically placed commonly used letter pairs apart from each other, reducing the likelihood of jammed type bars and improving typing speed.

The result was a layout that closely resembled the one we use today. Another neat theory suggests that the QWERTY design came into existence through feedback from telegraph operators. According to this origin story, the original designs would have been adapted to meet the needs of operators translating Morse code.

A success story

Ever since its birth and quick rise to glory, QWERTY has been a success story. One of the main advantages of the layout is its simplicity. It’s so easy to learn and use that you could proverbially teach a monkey to utilize it properly. Most people who have used a computer or typewriter are familiar with the intuitive and crazily efficient layout. Even the virtual keyboards that modern touchscreen devices use, such as smartphones and tablets, mimic the layout and functionality of the physical QWERTY keyboard.

Another great thing about QWERTY keyboards is that they are widely available and relatively cheap, making them a popular choice for a wide variety of people, from digital illiterates and hobbyists to dedicated IT professionals.

Smothering the competition

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Smothering the competition

Throughout the years, some alternative layouts have tried to end the reign of QWERTY. A notable example is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, a layout that was designed by Dr. August Dvorak in the 1930s. Dvorak sought to improve typing efficiency and reduce finger movement by placing the most commonly used letters and letter combinations on the home row. Another alternative layout that took a brave shot at world dominance is Colemak, but just like Dvorak this modern alternative to QWERTY never succeeded in knocking the established keyboard king off its throne.

Despite the competition, the QWERTY layout has weathered the storms of technological evolution and remains the foundation of modern keyboard design. Although other keyboard layouts may offer practical advantages in very specific situations, its simplicity, familiarity and universal appeal allow the QWERTY keyboard to remain a reliable and effective choice for the lion’s share of users.