About six months ago, Kenneth D'Souza of Danbury, Conn., decided to teach himself to type.
But he rejected the idea of learning the standard keyboard layout -- commonly known as "Qwerty," after the first six letters on the top alphabet row of the keyboard. He wanted something better, more efficient.
"And that's why I got Dvorak," says D'Souza, a 27-year-old salesman. "I have never regretted it."
Dvorak is an alternative keyboard layout that backers say is faster, easier to learn, easier on the hands and less prone to error than the Qwerty. It is the 1936 creation of inventor August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Washington, and his brother-in-law, William Dealey. They designed it, after exhaustive study of the English language, to make typing easier by putting the most frequently used letters on the keyboard's "home" row, or middle row of letters.
Proponents say that as many as 70 percent of keystrokes take place on the home row under the Dvorak scheme, compared with about 30 percent with a standard keyboard. An estimated 5,000 words can be typed just using the Dvorak home row.
Dvorak also aimed to encourage a right-left-right typing motion by putting all the vowels on one side of the keyboard. This, it was thought, would reduce strain associated with typing entire words with one hand on the standard keyboard (such as "devastated," "pumpkin" and "minimum").
Finally, the Dvorak keyboard was designed to minimize "hurdling," which is the jumping of typing fingers from row to row. In one study, Dvorak (a distant cousin of composer Anton Dvorak) estimated that the fingers of typists using a standard keyboard move 12 to 20 miles in a single day of typing, compared with one mile for typists using the Dvorak keyboard.
Despite its supposed advantages, however, the Dvorak keyboard has for decades been just a footnote in the history of typing keyboards.
The standard keyboard -- introduced in 1873 by Christopher Sholes, one of the pioneers of typewriter technology -- has been used by virtually all American typists for well over a century. Its popularity has persisted in spite of claims that Sholes actually designed his keyboard to slow down typists so that they wouldn't jam the typewriter keys.
The Dvorak keyboard might have remained in an odd backwater of typing if not for computers. In 1982, the American National Standards Institute cited the Dvorak keyboard as a worthy alternative to the standard keyboard.
Later, Apple Computer began marketing a keyboard that could be switched to the Dvorak layout, lending more credibility to the concept.
But perhaps Dvorak's biggest break occurred when Linda Lewis, president and founder of Keytime Inc., a Seattle typing school, persuaded Microsoft Corp. to begin including a Dvorak option in its Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 operating systems. As a result, millions of Windows users have the ability to convert their keyboards to a Dvorak layout with just a few mouse clicks.
"There has been a change in the tide since a year and a half ago. People have been coming out of the woodwork asking about Dvorak," says Lewis. "There's been enough acceptance ever since Microsoft put it in the operating system."
But is the Dvorak keyboard really a substantial improvement over the standard keyboard? There are some doubters.
Among them are S. J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis, who wrote a 1990 article for the Journal of Law & Economics called "Fable of the Keys," which challenged the superiority of the Dvorak keyboard.
"The claim that Dvorak is a better keyboard is supported only by evidence that is both scant and suspect," they wrote, adding that Dvorak himself conducted many of the studies that supposedly demonstrated the superiority of his layout. Other studies have given an edge to the Dvorak layout, but only a marginal one.
Dvorak proponents counter that such studies miss the point. While the Dvorak layout may offer some speed advantages over the standard keyboard, it is the comfort of using Dvorak that is its biggest advantage, they say.
"What I like better than the speed is the comfort. It's like your fingers don't really move very much. It's just like you're pressing keys," says Bob Ranger, who works at the school of management at Syracuse University.
But Liebowitz and Margolis question that assertion as well, saying their review of the studies showed no convincing evidence that Dvorak was better than Qwerty. "The consistent finding in the ergonomic studies is that the results imply no clear advantage for Dvorak," they wrote.
Those who love the Dvorak approach are not fazed.
"I am convinced that Dvorak is a better keyboard than what we've been using," says Marcus Brooks, a 36-year-old technical writer in Austin, Texas. "As long as people have the choice of using Dvorak, I think you'll find more and more people using it."
Brooks says he managed to switch to Dvorak with a month of practice and nearly doubled his typing speed in the process.
Dvorak, who died in 1975, never saw his invention widely accepted. And sometimes Barbara Blackburn wonders if she will either.
Blackburn was listed for a decade as the world's fastest typist by the Guinness Book of Records (the category has since been removed). Using the Dvorak method, she reached speeds of 200 words per minute -- and with high accuracy.
"It was just because of the [Dvorak] keyboard and the ease it is to type on it," Blackburn said.
At 76, Blackburn still works in the typing pool for the State Farm insurance company in Salem, Ore. Age has slowed her speed, but she uses the Dvorak keyboard and still wins accuracy awards.
Besides the ease of converting to Dvorak, proponents see several factors that could boost acceptance and use of the keyboard.
One is that with more and more people typing and using computers, there is new emphasis on typing-related repetitive-stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. While there are no studies proving Dvorak offers relief, some who have tried Dvorak report relief from pain and renewed ability to type.
The Internet is being used to spread the word about the Dvorak layout farther and faster than ever. More than a dozen Web sites have information about Dvorak, and many offer software for converting computer keyboards.
The Dvorak keyboard may also be winning more commercial acceptance. Kinesis Corp. in Bothell, Wash., a maker of ergonomic keyboards, recently added a Dvorak keyboard to its product line.
Kinesis spokeswoman Caprice Leinonen said she believes in the Dvorak advantage: "All you have to do is look at the layout of the keyboard itself to see how the keys are positioned for less awkward movements and efficiency."
"You see this wave coming up," says Randy Cassingham, a longtime Dvorak advocate and author of the book "The Dvorak Keyboard." "I've seen this cycle happen four or five or six times in the last 15 years.
"Each time, it gets bigger and more people switch."
Pub Date: 2/14/97