Business Life: QWERTYnomics
First published in Business Life, April 2009
Next time you’re at a computer, try typing “QWERTY”. You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding the keys: QWERTY, with minor international variations, is the universal standard for English keyboards.
An economist is the kind of person who thinks it’s worth asking if we got it wrong. Is QWERTY a good way of arranging the keys on a keyboard, or is it a historical accident that slows us all down? There’s more at stake than typing speeds. Whenever different standards collide – Mac versus PC, VHS versus Betamax, Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD, eBay versus QXL – economists worry that we might become “locked in” to an inferior standard when it attains a critical mass of users.
That’s certainly the received wisdom about QWERTY. Typewriters were originally fragile mechanical constructions, and it’s often said that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow down typists in the hope of preventing keyboard jams. In the computer age such jams are no problem, and slowing down typists simply seems perverse. But who wants to be the first to retrain himself to use a better, faster keyboard – and then struggle every time he moves employers or tries to use an Internet café? There are better ways to arrange the keys – such as the “Dvorak” keyboard, which, according to wartime trials by the US Navy, was so fast that typists could recoup the time and trouble of retraining within just ten days. If only we could all agree to make the leap at the same time, we could be plugging Dvorak keyboards into our computers and be reaping the benefits within a fortnight.
Not everyone buys the story of QWERTY lock-in. The American economists Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis call it “The Fable of the Keys” – pointing out that the evidence for Dvorak’s superiority is sketchy. (That Navy test? Conducted by a certain Lieutenant Commander August Dvorak, who owned the patent…) For Liebowitz and Margolis, network lock-in is an interesting theoretical possibility, but in practice they argue that people find a way to move to the new standard.
An intriguing new experiment supports that idea. Tanjim Hossain and John Morgan recruited Hong Kong students and paid them money if they were successfully able to coordinate on the same “platform” – an abstract representation of the choice between standards such as a Blu-Ray or an HD-DVD. What really mattered was to choose the most popular platform, and the students did that – but they also managed to coordinate a move to the higher-quality choice, even if they had started off on the low-quality platform.
Oh, and when you do type QWERTY, you’ll discover that while the keys are easy to find, they’re hard to hit because they’re so close together. Perhaps putting common letters on opposite sides of the keyboard wasn’t such a stupid idea after all?