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The Best Products to Come in Second Place

The Dvorak keyboard meets Dr. Dvorak-ian
The overwhelming majority of us have never used a keyboard that wasn't arranged with the familiar "qwerty" layout, named for the first six letters of the alphabet to appear on it.

But that hasn't stopped aficionados of the Dvorak keyboard from boasting of it offering a better way -- faster and more ergonomic -- and waging a decade-after-decade campaign for wider use.

The layout of the Dvorak keyboard, named for inventor Dr. August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Washington in the 1930s, is far different than the traditional set-up most are accustomed to.

The basic set-up for letters:


The system has been touted as more time-saving, efficient and ergonomic than the traditional keyboard layout. Why then are today's keyboards rarely configured with the Dvorak system?

To understand why, you have to harken back to the origin of qwerty.

When the typewriter was invented in 1866, its keys were ordered alphabetically. The problem was that striking adjacent keys too quickly would cause the corresponding hammers to intertwine and jam. With the release of the first commercially produced typewriter in 1873, the qwerty layout was developed with the goal of placing frequently used letter pairings on opposite sides of the keyboard, better separating the striking arms.

According to a history of the keyboard published by MIT, Dvorak challenged the dominance of the set-up by creating a mapping that was more efficient and easier to learn. His approach gained converts, but not without controversy. A study by the U.S. Navy in 1944 (Dvorak was a Naval officer) found that after proper training and practice Dvorak typists were 74% faster and 68% more accurate than their qwerty counterparts.

The qwerty camp, however was not convinced, and accused the Navy study of bias.

A government study in the 1950s found that the two systems -- compared for speed and accuracy -- were about the same and the learning curve and cost of a systemwide Dvorak switchover wasn't worth it.

The Dvorak fight continues to rage, though. Consumer demand led typewriter giant Smith-Corona to offer a Dvorak option in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently the fight has focused on computers, smartphones and tablets.

The ability to "remap" Mac and PC keyboards exists, and various companies are making Dvorak peripherals. Skins and sticker sheets are often used to convert a standard keyboard to the alternative ordering.

Browse tech Web sites and newsgroups and you'll also still find a small but enthusiastic base pressuring Apple (AAPL - Get Report) (for the iPhone and iPad, in particular), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Get Report), IBM (IBM - Get Report), Microsoft (MSFT) and Logitech (LOGI - Get Report) to offer better Dvorak integration and support.
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