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Taking on QWERTY's illogic

Entrepreneur is latest in line of engineers who think 125-year-old keyboard layout should be junked. Photos: The ABCs of keyboards

John Parkinson thinks the world has been tied to an Industrial Age keyboard for long enough.

One of a long line of entrepreneurs and scientists who have been outraged by the seeming illogic of the standard QWERTY keyboard, the 62-year-old electrical engineer is showing off a new, rival keyboard design next month at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

He touted the idea at CES last year, too, but this time, he has actual keyboards that will be released to distributors in February. After years of hunt-and-peck typing, he's convinced that there is room for change and that if he can show the way, bigger companies might follow.

"For the longest time, I thought, like everyone else, there's nothing you can do about QWERTY," Parkinson said. "In the end, some ideas occurred to me, and I decided to do something about it myself."

Like many of those that have come before, Parkinson's New Standard Keyboards are arranged alphabetically but with a twist. Instead of lining up the letters all the way across, he splits the keyboard in two, like most ergonomic keyboards. He then assigns the first half of the alphabet to the left hand and the second half to the right.

New Standard Keyboards

Is this enough to finally unshackle the typing legions from the mixed-up mess of an ordinary keyboard? Probably not. The average typist has spent enough time learning the QWERTY keyboard to make relearning even a better system unlikely, most experts say.

The QWERTY keyboard itself--named after the position of the first six letters in the top left hand corner--is mostly an accident of mid-19th mechanical technology.

Modern typewriter inventor Christopher Sholes initially experimented with arranging the keys in alphabetical order but discovered that the bars holding the letters collided and jammed too often as they struck the paper. He rearranged the letters into their current form in order to keep commonly used letters on different sides of the machine, reducing those collisions.

A well-publicized typing contest between the first QWERTY touch typist and a rival using a different system helped settle the issue in the public mind. The QWERTY user, a court reporter named Frank McGurrin, won hands down and went on a celebrity tour around the United States to show off his lightning-fast fingers.

In 1936, University of Washington professor August Dvorak patented a new system. Research on the system, he claimed, showed that it was vastly more efficient than the QWERTY layout. While many still accept Dvorak's claim, the actual product failed to undermine QWERTY's dominance.

The computer age has seen much more experimentation, from one-handed keyboards to virtual keys in which finger motion is read by lasers. The only real changes to be adopted widely have been the ergonomic evolutions, in which the two sides of the keyboard are split and rotated slightly away from each other, to let the hands rest more naturally.

"There's pretty strong evidence that the split keyboard...has a health advantage and can help reduce hand and arm pain," said David Rempel, a professor of medicine and ergonomics at the University of San Francisco.

There's no substantial evidence, however, that simply rearranging the keys offers health benefits, Rempel said.

Parkinson, a former aerospace engineer, said he was inspired to action after taking a typing class in which he reached 25 words a minute but then went back to hunt-and-peck after finding the touch-typing technique too distracting.

He concedes that earlier alphabetical designs have been even worse than QWERTY. But by splitting the alphabet into two groups, the letters wind up being placed more efficiently, he said. It puts punctuation and other keys in the center, potentially making them easier to reach.

He's ultimately hoping to work with larger companies but so far has been unable to spark their interest, he said.

"I pursued that aspect a little bit but decided it would be better to put it on market myself and prove (that) people want it," he said. "Then, maybe, the big companies will be interested."