May 11, 2013

Keyboard Fundoos And Fundas

The funny thing about India is that anyone who's literate is most probably English-literate as well. Of course, by English-literate, I don't mean to say that the person has necessarily mastered Shakespeare but is conversant with the English alphabet.

The spread of computers and cellphones will have an inevitable role to play in the evolution of the place for English in our lives.


Much of the scientific and technical literature exists in English as of now and pretty much ALL of the technical/engineering education happens in India using English. So at the higher end of the education spectrum, folks are all English-literate.



But the cellphone which came 'recently' has far overtaken the penetration of computers among the population so that it won't be at all unusual to find housewives in villages in veils using cellphones. These ladies may not necessarily be familiar with English. How are cellphone companies 'catering' to these customers? Are they trying? Do savvy marketers send SMSs in 'local' languages to these ladies to NOT to forget to 'buy' this or that thing to 'propitiate' this or that God? Surely, the HLLs,  Nirmas, ITCs and Reliances of India must be 'smart' enough to recognize a 'market potential' when they see one. My mom doesn't read any of the English SMSs she receives and they just lie there unread and unloved. If the service provider was smart enough, it would have bothered to send her SMSs in her own language and not in English.

There must be about 300 million such women in India who were only capable of reading in their own language but not English. May be I am being too optimistic; may be there are 500 or 600 million such people who know only to read in one of the 30 or so official languages of India. It would be a pity if companies and their English-educated marketing and advertising departments are dumb enough to just 'ignore' this vast market of potential consumers.

Anyways, I wanted to talk about keyboards. I loved the idea since childhood that 'some' folks could type-away lightning fast at the keyboard without even looking at the keyboard. Of course, by 'keyboard' I mean those clattering typewriters of old.


So how come typewriters came to acquire their QWERTY form? The common explanation is that this goes back to the early days of manual typewriters and their 'mechanisms' and this particular QWERTY layout ensured that the typing mechanisms did not jam.


But the real story may be a little bit more complicated. It may have had to do with the sending and receiving of Morse codes. Here's an article from the Smithsonian that gives the history of it all.


This Dvorak Simplified Keyboard certainly looks intriguing to me. If as a kid, one learned to use it first before ever looking at a QWERTY keyboard, perhaps the kid would grow up to be a faster typist in general than a QWERTY user. Of course, I am assuming that folks realize the need to be able to type without looking at the keyboard. It's somewhat hilarious for me to look at youngsters in the office fumbling with the keyboard trying to find an alphabet. Even when one becomes 'proficient' in typing with two fingers, it's still a slow way of doing things and one would need to look down at the keyboard more often than the 'professional' typist who can just focus on typing and composing the sentences and the actual typing gets done subconsciously as the 'brain' knows where each alphabet is without me having to think about it.


But, sadly, if I were to try to change over now to the Dvorak keyboard, I think my brain would get confused. Or would it?


May be it would be like using languages; and we in India manage with more than one language without any fuss at all. English may be our 'professional' language but we do not make the mistake of speaking in English to the local vegetable or cigarette shop owner. We know to speak in English to the American co-worker and in our 'mother' tongue when speaking to the mother.


So, could it be that if a person 'learns' to type using both QWERTY and Dvorak, the person's brain would memorize both the keyboard 'patterns' and a person can be pretty fast using either layout — the "brain" would be aware of which pattern is being used at a moment and the fingers would move accordingly.


Another similarity could be having the ability to play multiple musical instruments such as the piano, guitar, and violin. Clearly there are a few lucky folks who can play guitars and drums with equal felicity.


Lucky bastards!


But if we must choose between QWERTY and Dvorak and it's scientifically proven that Dvorak is better, how come we barely know of its existence and QWERTY dominates?

It's just a case of 'old habits die hard' or 'you can't teach new tricks to an old dog,' isn't it?

I don't know if in the near future all forms of interaction with our computer keyboards and those cellphone touchscreen keyboards will be via voice commands but if we are going to be using keyboards for the foreseeable future, why not go for Dvorak entirely?

Of course there are 'problems' with voice-based input and in one episode of 30 Rock we saw Jack 'innovating' by coming up with a voice based 'remote control' for the TV and what disasters that led to. The TV in that scenario would 'respond' to the audio of the TV itself and do weird things like when a character on a show said 'quiet' or something, the volume of the TV would go mute. May be that problem can be resolved in a more 'sophisticated' voice-based remote which 'only' responds to 'one' voice — that of the 'owner.' But that would create more problems. The TV remote can be operated by anyone who has it and not just one 'owner' or one family.

So if we go for voice-based inputs for computers and smartphones in place of keyboards, how would the device know when the user is asking for something to be input and when the user is just interacting with someone else and that is not to be input?

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