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QWERTY phenomenon also qwerty phenomenon

noun [countable/uncountable]

the tendency to continue using the first available system or product despite the fact that new ideas or new technology could provide better alternatives, or an example of this tendency

'The educational system could be considered as a victim of this qwerty phenomenon. Our educational system was designed for a time when the classroom was richer in information than the world outside the classroom. Teachers, trained within this system, teach as they were taught and thus perpetuate the traditional system …'

W. Lambert Gardiner 1999

It's interesting to think that, as you sit there reading this article and enjoying the benefits of 21st century technology in the form of the World Wide Web, you are more than likely using a piece of equipment based on 19th century technology – the QWERTY keyboard.

the term QWERTY phenomenon encompasses the idea of 'locking on' to a particular design solution

Amid observation that old ideas tend to persist (the QWERTY layout is the same today as it was when it was first patented in 1868!) the term QWERTY phenomenon has been coined to refer to the general tendency to stick with what is familiar, despite the potential for far more efficient alternatives.

The QWERTY keyboard was designed to deliberately mix up frequently-used pairs of letters and therefore prevent the jamming of keys which could occur if a typist worked too quickly. Though keys no longer 'stick', the keyboard layout has. There may now be much more practical ways of organising keyboards but the QWERTY standard is so established that any benefits would be considerably outweighed by the effort and cost involved in introducing a new system. The term QWERTY phenomenon encompasses this idea of 'locking on' to a particular design solution.

Background – QWERTY phenomenon

The expression is often used in computing contexts to refer to the persistent use of outdated (also called legacy) software and hardware technology. Interestingly, it has also been adopted by biologists to refer to the way that even living organisms retain features which are no longer useful or relevant. The QWERTY story is an analogy for the way in which biological anomalies get incorporated into living things, such as the existence of wisdom teeth, or the fact that the nerve connections in our eyes are back-to-front.

The expression QWERTY phenomenon was coined in 1980 by the South African-born mathematician Seymour Papert in a book called Mindstorms.

The QWERTY keyboard was patented by American printer and publisher Christopher Sholes in 1868. The term QWERTY does, of course, take its name from the first six letters on the top row of letters on a keyboard. Some people believe that the top row letter keys were chosen for ease of demonstration, observing that the word typewriter can be written by using the top row of the keyboard only.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 22nd November 2004.

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