Monday, July 13, 2009

QWERTY-nomics debate thriving 20 years after "The Fable of the Keys"   posted by agnostic @ 7/13/2009 02:05:00 AM

In 1990, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis wrote an article detailing the history of the now standard QWERTY keyboard layout vs. its main competitor, the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. (Read it here for free, and read through the rest of Liebowitz's articles at his homepage.) In brief, the greatest results in favor of the DSK came from a study that was never officially published and that was headed by none other than Dvorak himself. Later, when researchers tried to devise more controlled experiments, the supposed superiority of the DSK mostly evaporated.

Professional typists may have enjoyed about a 5% faster rate, or maybe not -- despite the conviction of the claims you hear, this isn't a well established body of evidence, such as "smarter people have faster reaction times." Moreover, most keyboard users aren't professional typists, and the vast bulk of their lost time is due to thinking about what they want to say. Therefore, the standardization of the QWERTY layout is not an example of our being locked in to an inferior technology. Which isn't to say that the QWERTY layout is the best imaginable -- but certainly not a clearly inferior layout compared to the DSK.

While Liebowitz and Margolis may have hoped that their examination of the evidence would have thrown some cold water on the "lock-in to inferior standards" craze that had gotten going in the mid 1980s, with QWERTY as the proponents favorite example, the idea appears too appealing to academics to die. (Read this 1995 article for a similar debunking of Betamax's alleged superiority over the VHS format.) Liebowitz appeared on a podcast show just this May having to reiterate again that the standard story of QWERTY is bogus.

To investigate, I did an advance search of JSTOR's economics journals for "QWERTY" and divided this count by the total number of articles. This was done for five four-year periods because it's not incredibly popular in any year, and that creates more noise in a year-by-year picture. I excluded the post-2004 period since there's typically a 5-year lag between publication and archiving in JSTOR. This doesn't show what the author's take is -- only how in-the-air the topic is. With the two major examples having been shown to not be examples of inferior lock-in at all, you'd think the pattern would be a flaring up and then dying down as economists were made aware of the evidence, and everyone can just leave it at that. But nope:

Note that the articles here aren't the broad class discussing various types of path dependence or network effects, but specifically the kind that lead to inferior lock-in -- as signalled by the mention of QWERTY. I attribute the locking in of this inferior idea to the fact that academia is not incentivized in a way that rewards truth, at least in the social sciences. Look at how long psychoanalysis and Marxism were taken seriously before they started to die off in the 1990s.

Shielded from the dynamics of survival-of-the-fittest, all manner of silly ideas can catch on and become endemic. In this case, the enduring popularity of the idea is accounted for by the Microsoft-hating religion of most academics and of geeks outside the universities. For them, Microsoft is not a company that introduced the best word processors and spreadsheets to date, and that is largely responsible for driving down software prices, but instead a folk devil upon which the cult projects whatever evil forces it can dream up. Psychologically, though, it's pretty tough to just make shit up like that. It's easier to give it the veneer of science -- and that's just what the ideas behind the QWERTY and Betamax examples were able to give them.

Overall, Liebowitz's work seems pretty insightful. There's very little abstract theorizing, which modeling nerds like me may miss, but someone's got to take a hard-nosed look at what all the evidence says in support of one model or some other. He and Margolis recognized how empirically unmoored the inferior lock-in literature was early on, and they also saw how dangerous it had become when it was used against Microsoft in the antitrust case. [1] He also foresaw how irrational the tech bubble was, losing much money by shorting the tech stocks far too early in the bubble, and he co-wrote an article in the late 1990s that predicted The Homeownership Society would backfire on the poor and minorities it was supposed to help. (Read his recent article on the mortgage meltdown, Anatomy of a Train Wreck.) Finally, one of his more recent articles looks at how file sharing has hurt CD sales. Basically, he details everything that a Linux penguin shirt-wearer doesn't want to hear.

[1] Their book Winners, Losers, and Microsoft and their collection of essays The Economics of QWERTY attack the idea from another direction -- showing how the supposed conditions for lock-in or market tipping were met, and yet time and again there was turnover rather than lock-in, with each successive winner having received the highest praise.

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