Why Do We Still Use QWERTY Keyboards? : The Indicator from Planet Money The story behind the first six keyboard letters are driven by economics.

Why Do We Still Use QWERTY Keyboards?

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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It is Stacey and Cardiff. Everyone types on a QWERTY keyboard, you know, where the first six letters across the top of the keyboard are Q, W, E, R, T, Y - QWERTY. But what is it about this arrangement of letters that explains why practically every keyboard uses it?

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money.

GARCIA: Pretty fast.

VANEK SMITH: I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I've been using a QWERTY keyboard for a long time now, Cardiff (laughter). And it turns out that there are some important economic lessons in the story of the QWERTY keyboard, the story of why it originally became the standard keyboard way back in the late 1800s and the story of why it has remained the standard keyboard for all the time since. And a great person to tell us the story is our own Tim Harford, an old friend of the show who just launched Season 2 of his own podcast, 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy.

GARCIA: So for today's episode of THE INDICATOR, we kind of just stole one of Tim's podcast episodes.

VANEK SMITH: Borrowed, borrowed.

GARCIA: Borrowed, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Inspired by.

GARCIA: Stole with permission, as we like to do here - so it'll be Tim's voice that you hear coming right out of the break. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TIM HARFORD: It matters where the keys sit on your keyboard. There are good arrangements and bad ones. Many people think that QWERTY is a bad one; in fact, that it was deliberately designed to be slow and awkward. Could that be true? And why do economists of all people argue about this? It turns out that the stakes here are higher than they might first appear. But let's start by figuring out why anyone might have been perverse enough to want to slow down typists. In the early 1980s, I persuaded my mother to take down her mechanical typewriter from a high shelf, delighted by this miraculous machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARFORD: I'd bang down on a key - not easy for little fingers. And when I did, a lever would flick up from behind the keyboard - a tiny golf club of a thing that would whack hard against an inked ribbon, squeezing that ink against a sheet of paper. On the end of the lever - called a typed bar - would be a pair of reverse letters in relief. I discovered through impish trial and error that if I hit several keys at once, the type bars all flew up at the same time into the same spot, like two or three golfers all trying to strike the same ball. For a professional typist, the results would leave something to be desired. And a professional typist might just run into that problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARFORD: Typing at 60 words a minute - no stretch for a good typist - means five or six letters striking the same spot each second. And at such a speed, the typist might need to be slowed down for the sake of the typewriter. And that is what QWERTY supposedly did. Then again, if QWERTY really was designed to be slow, how come the most popular pair of letters in English - T, H - are adjacent and right under the index fingers? The plot thickens.

The father of the QWERTY keyboard, Christopher Latham Sholes, a printer from Wisconsin, sold his first typewriter in 1868 to Edward Payson Porter of Porter's Telegraph College, Chicago, which gives a clue as to what was going on. The QWERTY layout was designed for the convenience of telegraph operators transcribing Morse code. Why do we still use it? The simple answer is that QWERTY won a battle for dominance in the 1880s. Sholes' design was taken up by the gunsmiths E. Remington And Sons. It wasn't the only typewriter around. Sholes has been described as the 52nd man to invent the typewriter, but the QWERTY keyboard emerged victorious.

Yet this brief struggle for market dominance in 1880s America determines the layout of the keyboard on an iPad. Nobody then was thinking about our interests today. But their actions control ours. These things have a momentum of their own. And that's a shame because more logical layouts exist; notably, the Dvorak, designed by August Dvorak and patented in 1932. It favors the stronger hand. Left- and right-hand layouts are available. And it puts the most used keys together.

The U.S. Navy conducted a study in the 1940s, demonstrating that the Dvorak was vastly superior. Training typists to use the Dvorak layout would pay for itself many times over. So why didn't we all switch to Dvorak? The problem lay in coordinating the switch. QWERTY had been the universal layout since before August Dvorak was born. Most typists trained on it. Any employer investing in a costly typewriter would naturally choose the layout that most typists could use.

Economies of scale kicked in. QWERTY typewriters became cheaper to produce and thus cheaper to buy. Everyone trained on QWERTY. Every office used it. Dvorak keyboards never stood a chance. So now we start to see why this case matters. For a leading economic historian, Paul David, QWERTY is the quintessential example of something economists call lock-in. Paul David argued that we get locked into standards like QWERTY all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARFORD: This isn't about typewriters. It's about Microsoft Office and Windows, Amazon's control of the retail link between online buyers and sellers and Facebook's dominance of social media. If all your friends are on Facebook apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp, doesn't that lock you in just as surely as a QWERTY typist? It doesn't matter if you personally might want to make the shift. You can't do it by yourself. The stakes here are high. Lock-in is the friend of monopolists, the enemy of competition and may require a robust response from regulators.

But there are two sides to the argument. Maybe these dominant standards are dominant not because of lock-in but just because the alternatives simply aren't as compelling as we imagine. Consider that famous Navy study that demonstrated the superiority of the Dvorak keyboard. Two economists, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis, unearthed that study and concluded it was badly flawed. They also raised an eyebrow at the name of the man who supervised it; the Navy's leading time and motion expert, one Lieutenant Commander August Dvorak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARFORD: Liebowitz and Margolis don't deny that the Dvorak design may be better. After all, the world's fastest alphanumeric typists do use Dvorak keyboards. They're just not convinced that this was ever an example where an entire society was desperate to switch to a hugely superior standard yet unable to coordinate. These days, Windows, iOS and Android all offer Dvorak layouts. If you prefer it, you no longer need to persuade your coworkers, your employers and secretarial schools to switch with you. You can just use it. Nobody else is even going to notice. Yet most of us stick with QWERTY. The door is no longer locked, but we can't be bothered to escape.

Lock-in seems to be entrenching the position of some of the most powerful and valuable companies in the world today, including Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Maybe those locks are as unbreakable as the QWERTY standard once seemed or maybe they're vulnerable to being crowbarred off at the first sign of restless consumers. It wasn't long ago after all that people worried about users being locked in to MySpace. One of the most important questions in the economy today is whether the locks that surround technology standards are formidable or feeble.

GARCIA: Again, Tim's podcast is 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy. It's from the BBC. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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