The AlphaGrip: a viable alternative to the QWERTY keyboard or not?
By Mike Hanlon
July 19, 2009
Answers often lie in strange places. I have long hated the QWERTY keyboard. Designed more than 150 years ago to slow human input via the frail mechanicals of the typewriter, it is a dinosaur masquerading as high tech and has become the main input device for billions of computers across the planet, strangling global productivity a little more every day because it is also impeding the progress of the computer from the desk to the couch, the train and the footpath. So when I called into beautiful Tapong to see my mate Kiril's new guesthouse on the beach in rural Thailand, the last thing I expected to find was a viable keyboard replacement.
The QWERTY keyboard was invented some time in the 1860s yet still exists today as the principal Computer Human Interface (CHI). It is also the main limitation we face every day in getting information into computers, as it was designed a century before humanity had more than a rudimentary understanding of the challenges of CHI design.
For the record, it was invented by Christopher Latham Sholes(1819-1890), a U.S. mechanical engineer who patented the first practical modern typewriter in 1868. The typewriter was first manufactured by Remington Arms Company in 1873 and prior to the advent of the computer, was the most significant everyday business tool. They developed what has become today's standard "QWERTY" keyboard and if you glance at the keyboard in front of you, you'll see the top line is an anagram of the company's brand which became a word of common usage - typewriter.
The world is full of hunt-and-peck typists who have never learned to use the QWERTY layout optimally and tests show that many modern keyboard designs (Dvorak, chord, etc) are far more efficient, yet the QWERTY layout has become the global interface for computers almost by default.
Kiril Okun began life in the former Soviet Union, was educated in the United States and now spends part of his time running a web development company in Bangkok, and most of his time living and working on the beach in his new guest house a few hours from Bangkok – he's a virtual commuter who has always had an eye for doing things differently, and is thoroughly committed to finding a better way, regardless of what he's doing.
So when he insisted on showing me his new AlphaGrip keyboard before he showed me his new guesthouse, I was intrigued. Browse the pages of this web site and you'll find dozens of keyboard alternatives and even a few vague references to the AlphaGrip layout, but because I'd only seen it in a prototype form, it hadn't reached my brain that a product actually existed.
The AlphaGrip provides a portable, comfortable way to write emails, take notes, compose memos, and create text messages 2-5 times faster than you can with a cell phone keypad or thumb keyboard and much more comfortably than a keyboard and mouse.
The AlphaGrip has been around in various forms for many years, though that should be no disqualification to it being a viable alternative to the keyboard. The ridiculous handicap the QWERTY keyboard has placed on the Computer Human Interface has been obvious since the very beginnings of the computer – on the same day Douglas Engelbart first publicly demonstrated the computer mouse, more than forty years ago, he also demonstrated a chorded keyboard. But for the Grace of God, the mouse might have gone the same way, and then where would we be?
Videos of that momentous day can be seen here.
Over the last twelve months, on different sides of the planet, Kiril and I had both come to the same conclusion after spending too many hours every week slaving over a hot keyboard – that the best position for prolonged cyber-serfing was the reclining position. My desk at home base is now a recliner and my desk on the road is a modified Lafuma Original Zero Gravity Recliner.
Whilst I had resigned myself to hunting and pecking in the reclining position on a traditional keyboard at ballistic speeds, he had sought and found an alternative and though he's just in the learning process, he's glowing that evangelistic orange and confident he'll reach 70 words per minute in no time using his AlphaGrip. Once he has mastered the interface, he's confident that he'll be able to type at that word rate words while standing, sitting, reclining, walking, or lying in bed.
So after playing with the AlphaGrip for half an hour, I logged into the AlphaGrips site and checked out this video of what happens when an AlphaGrip prototype was introduced to a high school computer science class, and this video of the AlphaGrip breaking a world record for speed texting and this array of videos demonstrating the various benefits of the AlphaGrip … and I ordered and paid for one online.
Paying for it was a tad uncomfortable, as technology journalists tend to cadge, borrow or demand evaluation copies if they are going to write about them, but being on the road for the next six months, and the logistics of the exercise meant that the path of least resistance and greatest commitment was to suck it up and pay the dollars. Sometimes it's better to commit fully and by paying the surprisingly affordable USD$109, I figured I'd be more inclined to follow through and invest not tens, but hundreds of hours in mastering the AlphaGrip, and maybe one day be able to walk the streets with my heads up display and a computer in my pocket - if I'm ever going to get to that point, it'll certainly involve reskilling beyond the QWERTY keyboard.
Indeed, I'd experienced a similar situation when I purchased a set of chorded keyboards two decades ago with the same quest for productivity in mind. Sadly, the prohibitive price coupled with poor reliability and the amount of desktop real estate commanded by those keyboards killed my enthusiasm for a QWERTY alternative all those years ago. Now I have committed once more. Stay tuned for a report on whether the AlphaGrip is a viable alternative to the dastardly QWERTY, and if you have experiences to share on the AlphaGrip, please join in the conversation in the comments.