Working Smarter: Putting an end to QWERTY

OHDI Prototype

Prototype of the OHDI, a device that one inventor says will replace the qwerty keyboard. Credit: OHDI.

Early typewriters sported different designs, but they all had one thing in common — keys that forced “striking heads” to jump out and leave ink impressions on paper.

Anyone who has ever toiled with a manual typewriter knows the faster you type, the more frequently those heads become tangled.

Then typewriter maker Sholes & Glidden in 1874 introduced the qwerty layout, which was designed to make tangles less likely as a result of where commonly used letters are positioned.

Qwerty today remains the ubiquitous standard that has withstood the test of time — a constant amid dramatic evolutions in technology.

But should it remain? Innovators believe there are faster ways to input text that would boost productivity and may lead to fewer mistakes.

Alternatives to qwerty have come and gone, but there are two projects in development today that may forever change the way we type.

An Internet entrepreneur says he is creating the keyboard of the future — a mouse-like device with just five keys. Researchers, meanwhile, are proposing a keyboard revamp that is rooted in open-source software.

Mediocre Solutions

Qwerty is particularly cumbersome on mobile devices. We generally use what is arguably our clumsiest appendage — the thumb — on a speed-limiting keyboard many times smaller than those on compact laptops.

Scottish researcher Mark Dunlop, a senior researcher at the University of Strathclyde’s Computer and Information Sciences Department, said early touch-screen research done by Nokia recommended using far bigger keyboards.

Nokia researchers “suggested buttons of no less than 9 millimeters across for thumb typing. With 10 keys on the top row of qwerty, that would be a 10 centimeters-wide phone. That is pretty big,” said Dunlop.

The keyboards displayed when phones are held vertically, meanwhile, are less than 6 centimeters.

Smartphone manufacturers have tried to compensate with software solutions.

Most common are programs that suggest words as you type, but these can offer bizarre, embarrassing or even offensive guesses. Voice-to-text software requires a lot of concentration to avoid infuriating corrections.

The Future of Typing?

Dunlop is part of a small movement to create an open-source software alternative to QWERTY that he said is more accurate and has unique features.

OpenAdaptxt, which is available for a wide variety of Windows and Android keyboards, boasts smarter word completion than its competitors, he said. It also predicts next words based on context and writing style. These and other features make OpenAdaptxt faster on mobile, laptop, desktop and specialty keyboards, Dunlop said.

Assuming it operates as claimed, OpenAdaptxt will still have to overcome broader market indifference to open-source software for it to become a success.

Inventor Philip Jepsen proposes a more fundamental change in his patent-pending, one-handed, digital interface that goes by the acronym OHDI.

“You can’t touch type on a smartphone. You can’t. You don’t know where your keys are so you are stuck looking at your fingers and the screen,” Jepsen said.

His device requires only one hand and uses only five buttons to type all the keys on most desktop and laptop keyboards, which have more keys than those on handhelds.

He said he has gone through nine versions of the keypad and has started to think about finding outside development money. Jepsen to date has funded his invention from the revenue he’s earned running a mobile-app and site-building business.

Users of Jepsen’s device would rest their palm on the OHDI and curl their fingers over the side to reach the keys.

There is only one key for each fingertip, but each one can be pushed forward, backward, side-to-side and downward to produce characters and perform functions. Place the OHDI on a flat surface and it will act as a mouse.

It’s still a product in development.

“I’m using the thumb to shift letters to capitals,” Jepsen said. “That slows you down a little bit, so I’m looking for software ways to use just the four fingers as much as possible.”

Jepsen said the OHDI is easy to learn and faster to use than a qwerty keyboard. He said that he and his daughter have been measuring their typing speed on a prototype.

“It took her 20 hours to get to 50 words per minute,” Jepsen said proudly.

Jim Nash is an award-winning business, tech and science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist Group and Scientific American.

Jim Nash

Jim Nash

Contributor at Tech Page One
Jim Nash is an award-winning business, tech and science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist Group and Scientific American.
Jim Nash
Tags: Business,Gadgets & Devices,Productivity
  • Shaun

    Looks like a microwriter from the 80′s.

  • Mike

    In the mid-to-late ’60′s, Mechanix Illustrated (I think; perhaps Popular Electronics) magazine had a build-it-yourself version of this, built into a ball that would fit into your hand, to be connected to the IBM Selectric typewriter. Interestingly, though, that unit had its buttons arranged in a non-planar fashion (unlike the simplistic planar format illustrated above), and the key pattern for each letter was determined from the letter shape.

    • Jim Nash

      That, to me, would be the best answer. Something I could hold at any angle in any position. And it better happen soon because my wrists are killing me and when they are done, they’re going to kill others…

  • Greg

    I saw something similar to this back in the 70′s, I believe it was an old ‘Interface Age’ magazine where the keyboard was a hemisphere held in one hand. That version had to be placed on a desktop and had more than 5 buttons (also had to move fingers between buttons).

  • James

    I am a big fan of the “QWERTY” keyboard design, but that is simply because it is the easiest to use whilst gaming. I’d try something like this if and when it comes out (if I can afford it…..).

  • tktim

    This item was sold a long time ago. Not sure how many buttons it had, but it was for one hand use and could be held at any angle in any position. The seller claimed you could type very fast with it, faster than a keyboard. Seller also claimed it was very easy to learn. I have an old usb mouse/ball device that you can hold in one hand and use like a normal mouse. Can right or left click with it and page up and down. When I had hand troubles, I would hold this device straight down on my right side in mid air and do everything a normal mouse could do.