It’s a common pattern for Dvorak enthusiasts. Augustus Dvorak, who designed the layout in the 1930s, died a frustrated man. His life’s work just never caught on. And yet, at various times, the Dvorak keyboard seemed as if it was on the cusp making it big. In 1985, the Washington Post reported that directory assistance operators across the country were using Dvorak, and state governments in Oregon and New Jersey were starting to switch. Apple was enthusiastic early in its history. Co-founder Steve Wozniak is a well-known Dvorak user. Nowadays, every major operating system supports it, although you have to re-label the keys.
Nobody knows how many people use it, but it’s probably not many. Canadian firm Matias is possibly the only manufacturer to make physical Dvorak keyboards, and it sells fewer than a thousand a year. It accounts for about 0.1% of their total sales.
Pinch and zoom on mobile to expand
“People are resistant to change, whether something is better or not,” says Linda Lewis. “They don’t want to hear about anything different because it took them so long to learn to type.”
Fable of the keys
For some time, the Qwerty versus Dvorak duel was the stuff of first year university lectures; the perfect way to explain “path dependence”, an economic theory that attempted to challenge the notion that free markets always pushed society towards the most efficient technology.
It was a Milwaukee printer Christopher Latham Sholes who invented the typewriter, and over a number of years developed Qwerty, which he sold to the manufacturer Remington. The best-known explanation for why Qwerty doesn’t seem to resemble the alphabet is that he separated the most commonly used key combinations in an effort to stop the machine from jamming.
Alternatively, Japanese historians Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka have suggested the needs of telegraph operators influenced the design, as did compromises between inventors and producers, and intellectual property issues. Either way, it wasn’t aimed at creating the fastest or easiest standard.
Stanford University economist Paul David argued that it became dominant because early “touch typing” techniques were most closely associated with Qwerty. Schools taught touch typing on Qwerty. Companies bought Qwerty typewriters because there was a pool of typists who knew how to use them. Typists would learn it knowing it would probably get them a job. Qwerty was suddenly everywhere, supported by a series of self-reinforcing relationships. By the time Dvorak came along, it was too late.
But critics reject this interpretation. In a 1990 paper titled “the fable of the keys”, Stan Liebowitz of the University of Texas at Dallas and Stephen Margolis of the University of California say the tests that found the Dvorak keyboard to be unquestionably better were conducted by Mr Dvorak himself, and he had a significant financial stake in its success. Subsequent tests in 1956 by the General Services Administration, they argued, actually cast serious doubt on the Dvorak’s value.