Polly (hi Polly ) asked me whether I really do think that the QWERTY keyboard is obsolete.
Well… tricky. It depends on how you define the word ‘obsolete.’ One definition is ‘no longer in use’ – and clearly the QWERTY layout is still in use (though not by me!), so on that basis you can argue that it isn’t obsolete… yet. Another definition is ‘outmoded’ or ‘out of date.’
Way back in the middle of the 19th Century, the QWERTY layout was thrown together (I hesitate to use the term ‘designed,’ since that word implies careful thought about all the relevant issues) to accommodate mechanical problems with the new-fangled ‘type-writer’ (a machine that nobody can dispute is now truly obsolete). QWERTY is, without a doubt, out of date. Better alternatives, of which the Dvorak layout is the best established, are available. It’s my belief that the main reason that these are not taken up is simply that most people aren’t aware of them.
In the mid-nineteen-nineties when the Innerwebz was just beginning to take off, I got some funny looks when I referred to fax technology as being ‘obsolete.’ The facsimile may still, even today, have a place, but I don’t think that anyone now will deny that as a means of transmitting documents it’s now outmoded. The people handing out the funny looks then were largely unaware of this new-fangled email thingy. As they were still using fax, that technology wasn’t ‘no longer in use’ – but it wasn’t long before they started using email instead.
If many people still use a thing, but only because they don’t know that it’s been superseded, does that make it any the less obsolete?
Perhaps the term ‘obsolescent’ – ‘becoming obsolete’ – is more appropriate, though I wonder whether that word would tend to confuse, but in a different way. Newer technologies are on the horizon; voice recognition is beginning to mature to the point that it may be worthwhile to consider using it for text input. There’s even, strange as it may sound, some progress on direct mind control over computers, though that’s still very much in its infancy. Such tools will eventually render the keyboard itself utterly obsolete, and make any discussion about which is the ‘best’ layout totally irrelevant. I don’t see that happening for several years – more likely decades – yet. In the meantime, it would make sense to me to educate people about alternative keyboard layouts, and, as these alternatives have numerous advantages, to try to encourage their adoption.
Contrary to common belief, King Canute wasn’t a fool who believed that he could hold back the sea: he was a very wise man who sat on the beach (sensibly seated on his presumably comfortable throne) as the tide came in – to prove to his people that he couldn’t hold it back. I find it ironic that so-called ‘common sense’ can show a wise man up as a fool.