looking for a vacuum

Lee Sigelman wants to know why smartphones don’t have keyboards that look like this?

That’s the Dvorak keyboard, and by all (well, most) accounts you can touchtype significantly faster on one of those than you can on a qwerty keyboard. The persistence of the qwerty keyboard is the poster child for the idea of economic path dependence – a story first told by Paul David. According to David, the qwerty keyboard was developed back when typewriters looked like this:

And the reason for the less efficient placement of the keys was to prevent having the typebars jam as they came up to strike the page. qwerty persisted despite the development of more efficient layouts for the keys. This made sense as long as typewriters had typebars, but what about after the development of roller heads? And, more importantly, what about after we started typing on computers? Surely once the threat of jamming is gone, we really want the keyboard with the most efficient layout, don’t we?

Apparently we don’t. David’s hypothesis is that the cost of teaching all of the touchtypists to use new keyboards is so high that using qwerty is locked in. So the path our current technology follows depends on history – hence path dependence.

I was reminded of this yesterday while I was reading Unleashing the Ideavirus by Seth Godin. In that, he talks about the importance of developing ideas for which there is a vacuum – in other words, ideas for parts of the product space that aren’t already taken up. What he’s basically saying is that when you’re innovating, you don’t want to fight path dependence. In fact, if you find empty enough spaces to work in, you can actually create path dependence that favours your new idea.

So when we’re innovating, we want to look for the vacuum.

And of course, the answer to the original question is that since no one is touch-typing on smartphones, what we really need there is the keyboard layout that is the most familiar…

(photo from flickr/John Ong under a creative commons license)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “looking for a vacuum

  1. It seems that a new model should really be used with smartphone keyboards. The qwerty system is set up for 8 finger typing, whereas you usually only use your thumbs while texting. There has to be a more efficient way of laying out the keyboard to be used by only two digits.

    However, even if someone took the time to develop this new system, how many smartphones would really take the chance on its customers learning a new layout. Even if I don’t touch type while texting, I’m still aware of where the keys should be, which makes the process easier. Yet another case of yearning for innovation, yet complaining when it’s implemented.

    • I suppose it isn’t entirely accurate to say that no one touch types on smart phones – I know that there were people that were ‘touch-typing’ for all intents and purposes when it was just the numerical keypad, so if people can adapt to typing on that, they can probably adapt to a new keyboard layout just as easily. But as you say DJ, being aware of wehre the key are ends up being the key issue, so there’s still a huge premium on familiarity.

      Still, it seems like that facebook group should be massively popular…