This is certainly among the best decisions I’ve made. Even if you won’t decide the same way, you are about to learn something awesome.

In seventh grade we learned how to type with ten fingers on the qwertz1 (German) keyboard. Oddly enough, it was a ‘free-to-choose’-lesson, one you could opt in to but most never visited. That begs the following question: why was it not mandatory, especially nowadays.

Then I changed schools and there it was mandatory. Suddenly I had one of the highest speeds in my class - I already learned most of it after all. We actually were graded based on typing speed and accuracy. That was the first time I became conscious about typing speed.

Some years later I got friendly with my ‘local’ (closest bigger city) hacker space. Usually this is a place filled with friendly people on couches and nerd-insider-jokes. Mostly related to Computer Science or Maths. Anyway, these are usually people well-trained to look for long-term improvements. I got quite a few things recommended there, from which I either tremendously benefited or still use today. One I still use everyday is Neo.

At some point I overheard someone ask someone else how it went learning ‘Neo’. He said he was quite fluent at this point, not needing to look it up again and again and finally seeing the benefits. I was confused. What were they talking about? Turns out ‘Neo’, or specifically ‘Neo2’ is a keyboard layout. It seemed quite strange at first, and not at all like something one would easily start using. Are they weird? QWERTZ is plenty fine, right?

Inconsistencies in QWERTZ

If you use qwertz (or variations thereof), you surely have noticed the small inconsistencies. No? Then you might want to reevaluate your life choices, since it’s something so blatantly obvious in front of you and you apparently haven’t noticed it. There might be endless opportunities, completely invisible to you.

Let me just tell you the funniest one: out of the six most frequently typed letters in the English language (or any Latin one, though the specific ones are slightly different) - E, T, A, O, I, N - just one is on the home row. In German as well, from the six most common ones - E, N, R, I, T, S - just one can be reached without finger movement.

Maybe a bit based on that, but most frequent bi-gram patterns (such as en or th) require a lot of movement. Even more so with tri-grams, combinations of three letters. This really is a hurdle when typing - they are the main ‘elements’ giving the typing experience fluidity.

This still sounds bearable, though.

The left hand is used much more than the right. Not just used, strained. The tendons and sheaths on the left hand are strained more by a little amount, continuously. The benefit? You can write a whole lot with just your left hand. Where does this asymmetry come from?

Short History of QWERTZ

Before Computers

The common knowledge-reason for qwertz is that it initially got developed for mechanical typewriters, being specifically optimized for higher frequency typing without equally frequent physical jamming. While this is true, there is more to it than that.

The initial version in the early 1870s actually looked like this2:

- 3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M

Things did not work out for two reasons: The type bars (or metal arms holding the keys) would jam when two within close vicinity were pressed together - and commonly used letters (such as ‘th’ or ‘st’) were close enough for that to happen3.

The next iteration, in April 1870, was still trying to keep most of the alphabet directly:

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 -
A E I . ? Y U O ,
B C D F G H J K L M
Z X W V T S R Q P N

It got changed again in 1873, and by 1878 it is barely distinguishable from a ‘modern’ QWERTY layout. It’s unclear if changes were influenced more by bigramm-analysis or telegraph-operator feedback. Since then it has barely changed.

Computers

With the first computers showing up, a commonly used layout is obviously one of the first things to consider. A whole lot of people already knew it, and early on it was a lot of text processing (at least those widely available) anyway. So it better be similar to the other text processing layouts, they already know them and are familiar with them.

Nowadays it’s still the same reason. Why should you bother learning anything else? Everyone knows and is familiar with QWERTZ after all, right?

So apparently QWERTZ is only used due to legacy reasons, and has some apparent drawbacks. Why is it that no better layout ever replaced it?

The story of Dvorak

Picture from Wikimedia

Even before computers, a pretty common nonstandard layout got developed as a result of the issues with qwertz. A patent of the ‘DVORAK’-Layout got filed in 1932 and accepted four years later. It improved typing comfort and reduced complex movements, making it faster to learn and easier to use.

In fact, it was so easy and fast that it was asked to be banned from typing speed competitions, due to the layout being an “unfair advantage”. New students learned it in only a third of the time it took others to learn qwertz.

The obvious question remains: If it exists for so long already, why is it that it has not superseeded qwertz yet? The answer to that is (most likely): inertia. Typists knew qwertz already. Why bother learning something new? So it never really gained momentum.

Modern Operating Systems (inluding Windows, but not iOS) allow easy switching to Dvorak.

Other nonstandard Keyboards

Dvorak did not stay the only improved layout - though it probably is the most common nonstandard one. Here are some others, created with similar goals in mind:

Colamak

Picture from Wikimedia

Additionally to the goals Dvorak has, it is intended to be easier to learn when already being familiar with the QWERTZ layout. This is achieved by reducing the amount and distance of changed keys, when compared to Dvorak. A series of intermediate layouts, replacing 3-5 keys at a time, make it significantly easier to adapt to.

It is possible to install it on Windows, all other Operating Systems provide support out of the box.

Maltron

Picture Created from MovGP0, unchanged

More than just a nonstandard keyboard layout, Maltron is a manufacturer of ergonomic keyboards. While also shipping with QWERTY or DVORAK Layouts, they developed their own, based on a frequency of use analysis of not just letters, but also special characters such as space, commas and dots. Bi- and trigram frequencies have been taken into account as well. Another design goal seems to have been to increase the number of different words each single hand can write.

Maltron keyboards work just like any other Keyboard and do not require additional software. No Operating-System adjustment is required, either.

NEO

Picture from neo-layout.org

The layout was created after analyzing bi- and trigram frequencies of German and English, making it especially suited for German programmers. Also, in stark contrast to DVORAK and COLAMAK, it also changes the positons of special characters, much to a programmers benefit. The navigation and numblock on layer four have substantially made my life easier.

Neo is pre-installed on Linux and MacOS, and several Keyboards (such as GBoard) for phones support it. It can easily be installed on Windows, though I prefer to use the portable executable, which can also be used without administrator privileges.

But is it really worth it? I’m already old

No. Certainly, changing your Keyboard layout will only improve your overall situation after some time. It will take some time getting used to, and makes you incredibly unproductive early on. It’s the same as choosing a new text editor. Emacs Vim will only be more efficient after some time, when you mastered the basics and start to adapt it to your specific workflows.

However, the potential payoffs are larger the more frequently you are typing something. As a programmer, using special characters is a pain. Normal layouts require you to considerably move around your hand and dislocate yourself in the process. That alone is something worth changing layouts for.

Even if you decide that maybe it’s not something for you, you might want to encourage others to try.

I want to switch. Do you have tips?

I switched from QWERTZ to Neo cold turkey. And while I certainly don’t regret it, you should plan for the following:

  • The first two weeks after the switch your typing speed will be painfully slow.
  • After that, it will be close to your previous QWERTZ speed.

Do:

  • Print out your new layout a few times, and place one above your screen.
  • Optionally: Use stickers to modify the visible layout on your keyboard.
  • Use a typing program such as klavaro to start learning the ten-finger-system with your new layout again.
  • Also switch the keyboard on every other system you come in contact with, including your phone. There is a neat portable version for Neo as well.
  • Tell others about what you do and why you do it. They will ask you about it in a couple weeks and you can tell them your success story!
  • Switch during a holiday if you cannot convince your employer otherwise. The drop in speed will be noticed, so better tell/ask beforehand.

Don’t:

  • Switching back to QWERTZ for any reason, because it will soon be for every small reason.
  • Get frustrated by your initial severely slow typing speed and progress. It will get easier, fast.

Even if you don’t want to change, don’t stop others from trying it and encourage them.


Footnotes

1: QWERTZ and QWERTY should be seen as interchangeable in this post.

2: Source: https://worldwide.espacenet.com/publicationDetails/biblio?CC=US&NR=79868&KC=&FT=E&locale=en_EP

3: Source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fact-of-fiction-the-legend-of-the-qwerty-keyboard-49863249/