(photos from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_keyboard_layout)
It is not that often that knowledge, competence, and experience in collecting computers would offer a new perspective to comment a text by a journalist, but then it is perhaps also not that often that such texts would exhibit same attention to details than collecting does.
In this Saturday’s Helsingin Sanomat, a columnist reports about a tablet computer that he has bought due to its cheaper price from a German online store. However, his password is not working even after a several attempts. Eventually, he discovers the reason: “The letters Z and Y are both found in the wrong place on the platform of the keyboard.” He continues, “the assembly line seems have been a little bit busy during Christmas”. Later the text asks, “whether a Chinese worker loses her sleep because slipping Z and Y to the wrong place”.
From these observations, the column then moves to consider the wastefulness of Finnish households and the fate of electronic waste — an interesting connection that I will not discuss more here. Instead, I want to note that the premise of the column could have been more accurate. As anyone who has owned retro or other computers from Central European countries would point out, the two letters Z and Y are not actually in the “wrong place”. Like Wikipedia could also tell us, they merely represent a different standard for organizing the keyboard.
More theoretically, drawing on economics and social science, the issue here can be named as path dependency. There is an expanding research literature on this concept, but let me try to offer my own explanation: technologies are path-dependent in so far as some, although rarely all, of their features stem from technologies that have been invented in the past and then standardized through various channels like patents, standards, education, and practices of everyday use. Such dependencies, while persistent and often not questioned in the context of everyday life, have furthermore in many cases little or nothing to do with the functionality of the current technology.
For instance, as I realized and blogged after seeing a typewriter in a museum, the shift, the caps lock, and the (carriage) return keys of current keyboards derive their names from very physical functions of the typewriter: “shift” actually shifted a mechanism that punches letters, “caps lock” locked this same mechanism, and “return” physically moved a sheet of a paper. Partly due to conventionality — but much more directly, due to patenting, standardization, training, and user skills as I will discuss soon — the names have persisted even if we might legimately name these keys something else today.
With shift, caps lock, and return, the current practices of keyboard use are still somewhat present in the keys’ names. However, this is not accurate for the order of keys on the keyboard. There is — and it seems, never even has been — a direct ergonomic or other usability reason for ordering keys in the currently popular QWERTY order. On the contrary, this ordering has been often deemed as counter-productive for typing speed. According to Wikipedia, the QWERTY order was only gradually invented to minimize jamming issues in the 19th century typewriters. Such issues are clearly not important for current computer keyboards; however, the order is still commonly deployed because it was first patented and then later standardized and established in education.
Here, a path was formed because specific institutional practices helped maintain it — while patents can expire, standards and education tend to have long duration measured by their effects. For a user, it can be both time consuming and even irritating to relearn typing a keyboard, for example, as anyone having traveled would probably note. But having said that, the concept of path dependency should still not suggest that there was only one path or that a path offers no room for alternative designs. One matter is that different actors like inventors, entrepreneurs, and standardization bodies have always tried to establish different standards with an interest in the different imagined ways of using technology; another matter, probably more relevant here, is that sometimes such actors have also successfully shifted the already established standard for their own needs.
Such seems to be precisely the case with the QWERTZ keyboard, which is based on German standard DIN 2137-2 and is also popular for example in Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. Several other popular variations also exist including the AZERTY keyboard prominent in France and the more thorough redeployments such as the simplified Dvorak order patented already in 1936.
These and other diverse ways of designing and standardizing technologies are not simply manufacturing errors or slippages — although from an everyday perspective where technologies have become almost obviated, they may certainly seem like that. They are co-existing, but still established kinds of technological design. They are partly maintained by standards, but also significantly by technology users who have grown attached to a particular learned way of deploying the keyboard, or a software, or even an entire operating system. To me, all of this suggests that while many internationally adopted standards certainly exist — the Internet offering many useful examples from HTML to PHP — sensitivity to the local practices of technology use remains important as ever.