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Why QWERTY?

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

    

It amazes me how incredibly computer savvy both of my kids are now. 

Maybe that shouldn’t surprise a dad with two kids less than five years old.  It’s just that one moment they’re searching for dinosaurs on Google, then the next moment, they’re fighting each other for the last jelly bean

Anyway, today my oldest asked me why the computer keyboard was all out of order.  Why doWhy QWERTY?es it go Q-W-E-R-T-Y-… when it should go A-B-C-D-E-…  I explained that there are certain letters that are used more often than others when you write / type words, and that this design was used by a lot of people over many years, and is the best and fastest way to type.

And then she asked, “Are you sure it’s the best?”

( Kids.  Always with the backtalk.)

So we started out on the path to figure it out.  We googled QWERTY, and a number of interesting texts came up discussing the matter.  After a few minutes of reading, some healthy discussion, and a couple of shots of chocolate milk, here’s what we came up with.

The QWERTY model was actually developed quite a long time ago, in the late 1800s, and evolved over a number of attempts at an effficient keyboard, including one that started “A-B-C-D-E-…”  The key here is that a few of the pioneers in this space happened to be tied into a company that put out one of the earliest “writing machines”, which embedded the QWERTY format into its model, and marketed the hell out of it.  Next thing you know, its everywhere.

(We’ve seen that movie before.)

We also learned about a science known as “letter pair frequency” – for example the frequency of the consecutive letters “th” in the English language is 1.52%, while the frequency of the consecutive letters “ur” is 0.02%.  This is a key part of defining how the letters were to be arranged.  A lot of pretty smart people spent a lot of time figuring that out.  God bless ’em.

Fair question...

Fair question...

So, it’s clear that QWERTY is a pretty good system, based on actual science.  But our question here was “Is QWERTY the best?”

Turns out there are a number of issues with the QWERTY model – a lot of the most frequent letter combinations require the same finger to type it, one hand ends up typing more than the other in a lot of cases, etc, etc, etc.

One of the most famous contrarians to QWERTY was a gentleman by the name of Dvorak, inventor of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, seen below.  It was apprently developed with a focus on letter pair frequencies and hand physiology.  In fact, some Dvorak-ites claim less of a chance of carpal tunnel with this keyboard.

The Dvorak Keyboard (Source: www.dvorak-keyboard.com)

The Dvorak Keyboard (Source: http://www.dvorak-keyboard.com)

 

Some interesting facts we uncovered about the Dvorak keyboard:

  • The home keys are made up of the vowels and the most used consanants.
  • You can type ~400 of English’s most common words with just the Dvorak “home keys” (vs ~100 on QWERTY).
  • In general, ~70% of typing occurs on the Dvorak home keys (vs ~30% on QWERTY)
  • Dvorak attempts to make stroking motion go from the outside of keyboard toward the middle, based on the assumption that its easier to tap your fingers from pinky to pointer vs the other way around
  • Some operating systems offer you the option to configure your keyboard in the Dvorak model

Interesting stuff, no?

At this point, knowing that our research was far from thorough, we figured that no matter how interesting or scientifically superior that Dvorak model may prove to be, QWERTY has engrained itself so deeply into our culture at this point that it’s difficult to see the mainstream world changing. 

On computers, that is.

It will be interesting to see how / if this becomes more of a discussion topic now that we’re heading toward smaller mobile devices, tablets, etc.  Also with advances like smart typing (aka autocorrect) and the “SWYPE” techinque for mobile keyboards, perhaps the opportunity to better fine tune the keyboard will present itself.

So is QWERTY the best?  Probably not. 

Will the world likely adapt a better model in light of newer input devices? 

Well, maybe it’s time we thought about it. 

It is also at this point that I realize my kid is long gone, and is now watching Disney channel upstairs.  Oh, well.

At least she’s watching Little Einsteins.  🙂

(“Princess, can you help Daddy reset the computer keyboard back to QWERTY?”)

Until next time.

Joseph B George
@jbgeorge / www.jbgeorge.net

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The Cloud and Cotton Candy

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

  
The other day I was asked a far too familiar question…
  

          “What is a cloud?”
  
Oh, man – here we go…

Like a kid in a candy store, I began to discuss the origins and evolution of IT.  Servers, storage, networks, virtualization… on and on, reveling in exercising my cloud muscle.  IaaS, PaaS, SaaS… every “*aaS” I could think of!  Vendors, strategies, theories, models… it was an amazing tribute to one of our most talked about spaces, if I do say so myself.

    
The response from the interested party?
     

          “Well, it kinda looks like cotton candy.  Hey!  Let’s get some cotton candy!” 

  
At this point, I should note that the question came from my five year old.  And the question was actually phrased, “Daddy, what is a cloud?”

  
Often, those of us in the tech world that live and breathe the bleeding edge forget to translate all this cool gadgetry into tangible benefits for the rest of the world.  Not that the “rest of the world” couldn’t grasp the technical concepts, but great technologies are often great because of the simple benefits they bring.

So again – “what is a cloud?”
  

  • For the small business, cloud could mean more focus on core competencies and less on IT.
  • Cloud can help drive better efficency when it comes to power consumption and carbon footprint, helping the environment.
  • In the case of the State of Minnesota who has agreed to begin adopting cloud computing, it could mean less long-run overhead and costs associated with running the state – which could turn into more services, less taxes, etc. (Learn more about this development at http://bit.ly/bz47j4.)

  
Now there’s no need to try and translate every tech concept into layman’s terms, but for better or worse, cloud’s getting a lot of play.  It’s important we remember to articulate the value of these amazing technologies into terms that demonstrate how it makes the world better.

How have you answered the question “What is a cloud?” with non-techies you’ve encountered? 

Share your stories here or tweet me on twitter (@jbgeorge).

OK, then – I’m off to get some cotton candy.

Until next time,

Joseph B George
@jbgeorge / www.jbgeorge.net

Tech Giving Back

October 4, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been great to recently see a number of stories regarding highly visible individuals in technology giving back of their success. It’s always uplifting to see people helping people, regardless of scale, and especially exciting to see the technology field make news about philanthropy.

Here are a few that caught my eye:

  • Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have been traveling through China, meeting with the wealthy and affluent of the country, to inspire them to give back to the community more than they have.  Reports indicate that the participants are very receptive to the message, and the charitable donations in China from this group are expected to grow as a result.  Gates and Buffett are looking ahead to India next year.
     
  • Facebook’s Mark ZuckerBerg will be donating $100M to New Jersey public schools.  Newark in particular barely graduates 1 out of 2 students, and the college enrollment rate is smaller than that.  A donation of this magnitude, and the programs it will yield, will surely have an impact on these kids.
       
  • A number of companies, including Dell, ExxonMobil, and UPS International, joined numerous governments in pledging millions as a part of UN Summit on Millenium Development Goals, to help end extreme poverty and hunger, drive education, and promote equality.

Big names, big dollars, big impact. 

Rather than sit back in awe, I hope this inspires all of us to give something back – donate to a charity, make time to volunteer, do a good deed.  Even a seemingly small gesture could make a big difference with rippling effects.

Here’s to Tech making a difference!

Until next time,

JBGeorge
www.jbgeorge.net