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E-Business in the Enterprise – November 04, 2003


By Sean Mc Grath

A long, long time ago (1872 to be precise), there was a machine called the 'Type Writer'[1]. There are many tales told about its famous QWERTY keyboard layout and some of them may even be true[2].

My personal favorite story is that the top row of letters were picked to ensure that the name of the product "type writer" could be typed out quickly and accurately by greasy haired salesmen selling the product. I hope that one is true. I love examples of where devious sales tactics trump engineering common sense. It helps keep me grounded in reality.

Regardless of what confluence of events conspired to gift the QWERTY keyboard layout on the world, I think it is fair to say that its first real competitor can now be seen on the horizon. No, I do not mean Dvorak[3] or even chording keyboards[4].

I am referring to the keyboard layout familiar to more and more teenagers from their mobile/cellular phones[5]. On the face of it, nothing could be more user unfriendly - three letters or more on each key - it will never take off right?

Well, however clumsy or counter-intuitive it may seem to us QWERTY-philes, someone forgot to tell the kids. Take a walk around a congregation of teenagers - especially in Europe and Asia - and you will see a high percentage of them engaged in text-oriented communications on their mobile phones. It's an impressive sight. Typically, they do all the typing with one thumb, never look at the keyboard and carry on a fully fledged conversation at the same time.

The big question for QWERTY is this : what happens when these ABCDEF, tap tapping types, reach the age where they habitually carry around fully fledged computers? My guess is that some of them will be quite comfortable with - and may even demand - the ability to use the tap tapping coding system of their mobile phones on their new computers.

This may have an interesting impact on laptop computers where, historically, the QWERTY keyboard has been a limiting factor in minimization. I suspect what will happen is that we will see the QWERTY keyboard world innovating around the multi-tap approach of SMS and the SMS world innovating around the single-tap approach of QWERTY.

On the hardware side, an example of this innovation is the fasttap layout[6] in which letters are interspersed between numbers in a three dimensional arrangement.

On the software side, we will see tools emerge that allow users to type in the language of SMS shorthand and have the computer expand their words as required.

Some worry that the emergence of weird shorthand coding systems are a sign of an emergent form of illiteracy. For example, an essay from a thirteen year old girl in Scotland has found its way onto the Internet[7]. It starts like this: "My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kds FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc." Which translates as "My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It's a great place".

At last, we are seeing some real innovation to deal with the terrible disparity between how quick we can think and how quickly we can converse with machines.

Wonderful! Next up, Lojban[8] but that will have to wait until a future article - not to mention a future generation of teenagers.

[1] http://home.earthlink.net/~dcrehr/whyqwert.html
[2] http://www.reason.com/9606/Fe.QWERTY.html
[3] http://www.mwbrooks.com/dvorak/
[4] http://www.tifaq.com/archive/chord-keyboards.txt
[5] http://www.sinoproduct.net/mobile_phone_keypad/mobile_phone_keypad.htm
[6] http://www.digitwireless.com/
[7] http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/03/03/1046540139361.html
[8] http://www.lojban.org/