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Dvorak Keyboard Layout Makes Comeback 60 Years Later

Computer age is catapulting a speedier typing method to compete with mainstream 'QWERTY'

DO you know why typing seems awkward and slow, even after you've left the hunt-and-peck method behind?

The answer is "QWERTY."

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For the uninitiated, the name comes from the six letters that begin the top left row of today's standard keyboard. Unfortunately, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to be just as confounding as it sounds.

Developed in the days of the manual typewriter - invented in 1867 by Christopher Latham Sholes - the keys were specifically laid out to slow down typing so the machine could keep up.

But the computer age is catapulting a keyboard layout with its own quirky name into the spotlight - the Dvorak.

Developed by August Dvorak and William Dealey at the University of Washington at Seattle, the Dvorak layout actually debuted in the 1930s.

A statistics professor, Mr. Dvorak found that by placing the vowels on the left-hand side of the "home" (middle) row and the most-used consonants on the right-hand side, the typist can frequently alternate keystrokes between hands. With QWERTY, many words must be typed with one hand only.

But, like most traditions, the QWERTY habit was hard to break. And no one wanted to shell out more money to buy a new manual typewriter with a different layout.

A keyboard revolution

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But Dvorak converts say the time may now be ripe for a keyboard revolution.

The reason: Typing is increasingly done on computers with keyboards that can be switched from QWERTY to Dvorak at the click of a mouse or the push of a button. So there is no cost, and QWERTYites can still use the machine.

"I think it has a shot at being mainstream," says Randy Cassingham, author of "The Dvorak Keyboard" (Freelance Communications, 1986). The Pasadena, Calif., resident says he saw his speed jump from 55 words a minute to more than 100 after switching from QWERTY to Dvorak.

According to keyboard experts, about 70 percent of a user's keystrokes are made on the home row with Dvorak versus 32 percent with QWERTY.

Currently, less than 1 percent of typists use the Dvorak, according to Steve Ingram, who heads Dvorak International, an association of users based in Poultney, Vt.

Yet even Dvorak advocates, having seen the system languish for decades, are careful not to get overly optimistic about its future.

"I would guess that probably if 10 to 20 percent of the population were typing [with] it, then that would be enough to carry it over" eventually to a majority, Mr. Ingram says.

Roadblock to progress

One roadblock to "progress," advocates say, is resistance or apathy from typing instructors who may feel wedded to tradition.

"A teacher does not need to know how to type Dvorak to teach this," says Linda Lewis, who runs Keytime, a typing-instruction firm based in Seattle.

Mr. Cassingham points to another obstacle: "People remember learning how to type in high school and remember how horrifying it was." Dvorak is easier for both beginners and those switching from QWERTY, he says.

Ms. Lewis agrees, estimating that with 15 hours of practice, a typist can begin feeling comfortable with Dvorak.

"For people who've never been handicapped by learning the old system, it's great," says R.M. Bressler, former chief executive of Burlington Northern. He learned to type for the first time on Dvorak after he retired and started using a computer.

But devotion to Dvorak can pose challenges. Ingram tells of one would-be lawyer who is allowed to use a typewriter, but not a computer during his bar exam.

"The exam is several months away, and we're trying to find him a [Dvorak] unit," Ingram says.

Some keyboard layouts have been developed that surpass even Dvorak, Lewis adds. But these improvements are incremental.

Cassingham notes that the Dvorak layout itself has been changed.

Applying the same principles to numbers as he did to letters, Dvorak arranged the number keys in "optimal" order: 7-5-3-1-9-0-2-4-6-8. But this order proved baffling to users, and now the layout uses the standard 1 to 10 order.