Wlonk Questions and Answers

What does it look like?

Because the basic principle of the device is that there are ten pads that are always in contact with the user's fingers, the shape of the device can resemble anything the human hand is comfortable holding: a softball, a steering wheel, a tool handle... the form need not even be fixed.   The device could, for example,be configured as two strips of fabric that can be wrapped around the arms of an office chair.

The pads do not have to be visible to the user, so the thumb pads could be put on the sides of a laptop computer and the finger pads on the back.    The computer itself would no longer have to be any larger than its screen.  

Why will the average user prefer it to a QWERTY keyboard?

The obvious reasons are the remarkably short learning curve and increased efficiency.   You learn it by yourself, at your own pace, and spend far less time on the task than you would ever expect to, especially if you have already gone through the protracted and difficult process of learning an existing keyboard. 

After your very short time as a student, you are keying faster than you ever could have done on any regular keyboard, and with far less effort.   Because repetitive data and command macros are reduced to single chords rather than dozens of keystrokes and frequent consulting of manuals, you are able to concentrate on what you are doing rather than trying to figure out how to go about doing it. 

It takes far less physical energy to use a Wlonk, because only the fingertips move. No more aching fingers, hands, and wrists. 

There is another factor, however, which users themselves brought to our attention.   Most of them said, quite spontaneously, "This is FUN!" Now, who on earth would ever expect any sane person to enjoy typing?    We certainly had not.   Some questioning uncovered two reasons.    The first was that people were being actively rewarded for using their imagination. Daydreaming is suppressed In every office as a waste of time. The memory techniques make use of it, however, and users are grateful. 

Another reason is control.   Frequently computer users want to perform one task quickly and move on to another, only to have the computer environment demand that they perform several subtasks first; do them all perfectly; and then do them all again the next time, no matter how many times they've been done before.   

Many systems of macros and scripting have been created to deal with this problem, but the problem is that there are so many of them.    Users not only have to learn them and avoid confusing them with each other, but also must plan how to use them because the macros must be created before they are needed. The solution begins to approach the size of the problem.

The Wlonk's macro capability is always available, no matter what application or operating system is in use. Users create macros when they are needed or wanted, rather than in advance.   Because the process is so simple, users quickly build up personalized macro libraries -- and use them to make the work go faster and smoother. 

People see this as a shift in power from the system to themselves: they can now do the things they want to do, in ways that make sense to them. 

What makes the Wlonk so easy to learn?

The QWERTY keyboard, like a musical instrument, relies on muscles learning what to do. Every student must repeat simple movements a great many times until they seem "natural" and then practice even more, doing these different tasks many times in many different sequences, in order to master the shift from one to any other and develop anything resembling reasonable speed and accuracy. 

It is a daunting, time-consuming chore as dull as calisthenics, but with none of the physical benefits.   No one with an active mind enjoys it.    Indeed, one of the proven strategies for success in learning to type is to separate it as much as possible from mental activity.   Anyone who has seen a roomful of data entry operators chat away for hours, completely oblivious of what their hands and eyes are doing, soon realizes that. 

No modification of QWERTY such as Dvorak or Maltron can escape this.   Although they offer slightly better performance, these alternatives are just as awful for the beginner to learn and, for those who must also set aside their prior learning of QWERTY, they are sometimes even worse. 

The Wlonk, in contrast, does not require fingers to leap about like gazelles or strike like hammers.   They need only press down, in place, a barely noticeable distance. Thus the user only has to learn which set of fingers produces a certain character or sequence of characters. 

How can the Wlonk possibly be learned in so little time?

Long-established memory techniques have been adapted for this purpose.  Remembering ten words is all that is required to master the basics of the system and be able to key in numbers.  Learning twenty-six more words (arena to zombie) allows the user to chord the alphabet. 

Personal instruction is not necessary; a program can easily teach the memory techniques and provide keying practice with immediate feedback on speed and accuracy. Such a program would be considerably simpler than current typing-tutor programs for ordinary keyboards. 

How fast can can a Wlonk user "key"?

Even an average user should be considerably faster with a Wlonk than an experienced typist with a keyboard. 

Court reporters use a chording device that has only one advantage over the standard QWERTY keyboard -- multiple output characters from single input chords-- but they attain speeds two and three times higher. 

Furthermore, both QWERTY and the court reporting system require the user to perform the same four tasks for each keystroke or chord: decide which keys to use, decide which fingers to use, move the fingers to the keys, and then press the keys.   Because the Wlonk has each finger already resting on its pad, "key"decision and finger decision are condensed into one short memory-recall task, and key-to-key finger movement is eliminated, giving the Wlonk user an additional twofold advantage. 

In addition, because the Wlonk does not require that the hands and fingers be kept hovering above the keyboard it takes far less effort to use.  The palms can be fully supported; so can the arms.  The back need not be held straight. Because the Wlonk requires less motion, users would experience far fewer repetitive strain injuries and be able to key comfortably for longer periods.

Is it less expensive to manufacture than a conventional keyboard? 

Yes.     A standard QWERTY keyboard for a computer has over a hundred keys, and each spring and plastic mechanism must be fitted with a specific keycap.     The Wlonk keyboard needs only ten "keys," which can easily be mounted on the handset and are identical, so they are fully interchangeable.    The number of moving parts is reduced to a minimum.   

True, it does require a small on-board computing chip and a memory chip; but the QWERTY keyboard contains an on-board processor as well, along with circuitry to interface all the keys to it.     The price of chips is going down all the time, while the cost of assembly is not.   

What about languages other than English?

QWERTY was designed for the English language and the Roman alphabet.    Russians and Greeks, for example, must use a severely modified version of it for their alphabets; Eastern Europeans, Scandinavians, and Germans need various diacriticals and other symbols that are missing from QWERTY and must be supplied either in alternate type faces or by complicated alt- or option-characters.    Thus, they have all the problems with it that English speakers have, and a few more as well.   

Those who speak and write ideographic languages in which a single character represents an entire word, like the Japanese with their Kanji characters and the Chinese, face a much worse set of problems.    A Chinese typewriter has a grid of forty keys by forty keys: that is, the typist must master 1,600 keys.   Needless to say, these keyboards are very slow to use, even allowing for the fact that each keystroke produces a whole word instead of just a letter.    But even a typewriter with 1,600 keys is grossly inadequate to the task at hand.   Minimal literacy in Chinese involves roughly 2,000 characters, and a scholar may know easily ten times that number. 

Similarly, while three thousand ideograms is enough for the average Japanese newspaper, the language itself has upwards of eighty thousand.    The Japanese have many typing systems, but the current favorite uses a QWERTY keyboard to key in an English phonetic equivalent to the Japanese, and then has software guess which of several Japanese words is meant.    The user must wait for and agree to the choice, or pause and choose an alternative.    This is not only extremely slow (twenty words per minute is considered expert in Japan), but requires that the typist learn enough of a foreign system to be able to create the phonetic equivalents.    The Japanese are, needless to say, actively seeking alternatives.   

With the Wlonk, two successive chords will yield more than one million combinations, enough to handle a dozen languages as complicated as Japanese.     True, the Japanese users would have to remember more chords than those with an alphabetic language, but that is a function of their language rather than the device itself.    Even so, it would certainly be easier and more efficient than what they must do now, and the memory techniques are as applicable to their language as to English or any other.  

How are punctuation characters handled?  

While users can assign a chord to any punctuation character many are used so rarely that learning a chord for them is more trouble than it is worth.      For this reason, a display of all the ASCII characters can be accessed from the alter dialog.   Selecting from the display "keys" that character.      This way the user can decide which characters are needed often enough to warrant their own chord, but still be able to input any of the others on those rare occasions when they are needed.   

How does the Wlonk compare with existing keyboards?

Considering the competition we face today, we are very fortunate.     Complaining about the faults of the QWERTY keyboard is beating a dead horse: the one computer story that any journalist can write -- and many do, because even readers who do not own or use computers can understand it -- is that QWERTY just is not good enough.    

It is so bad, in fact, that there are those who believe most so-called "computer-phobia" is actually keyboard phobia.    Because typing is still a low-status activity and most users cannot take several weeks off to master QWERTY, not being able to touch-type is the great "dirty secret" of personal computing -- just ask any computer store owner how much typing instruction software passes through the inventory.   

The Wlonk stands in relation to QWERTY as computers with graphic user interfaces stand in relation to those with only a command line: once people have experienced the ease of learning and ease of use of the former, they do not willingly return to working on the latter.   

If complaining about the faults of the QWERTY keyboard is beating a dead horse, praising the Dvorak and Maltron variants is merely perfuming the corpse.     One study comparing QWERTY, Dvorak, and other layouts, including a random one, found no substantial increase in efficiency or ease of learning with any of them.     The results were so obvious that the researchers were moved to write their conclusions in plain English: "Our lesson is simply this: Do not waste time rearranging the letter arrangement of the existing standard keyboard.  " 

We learned that lesson.   

Won't the entire idea of typing be obsolete soon?

In a word, no.   

The only serious competitors to the Wlonk are voice and handwriting recognition.    Neither yet threatens QWERTY, but let's speak of them as though they did.    Let's further assume that they have both overcome the obvious difficulties: recognizing your handwriting after you have been out for a night on the town, and your voice when you have a head cold.    Let's even allow voice recognition to successfully filter out the "uh"s, "umm"s, and "er"s that speech is full of, and let's ignore the fact that almost nobody speaks in complete sentences.   

Handwriting recognition loses much of its appeal as soon as you ask, "How fast can you write?"  This is to say nothing of the fact that writer's cramp existed long before repetitive strain injuries became fashionable.     The Wlonk is much, much faster than the pen.  

Voice recognition is similarly vulnerable.    How fast can you talk?  How quietly?  How could you safeguard confidential information in a crowded office?  (Think about overheard phone conversations!) How much work would get done in crowded offices if everyone was talking to their computers?  Most devastating of all, how do you handle punctuation?  The comedian Victor Borge did a truly hilarious routine on the explicit verbal expression of punctuation.    Nobody who hears that routine will ever rely solely on voice recognition technology for input of natural language text.   

For programmers, the voice-input issue is compounded by the fact that computer languages are very different from conversational English.    Imagine having to speak the following source code fragment so another human being could accurately transcribe it, let alone a computer:


CreateFile( fn, vRef, theRef ) Str255 fn; int *vRef; int *theRef;{
int io;         io=Create(fn, *vRef, 'CEM8', 'TEXT');   if ((io==noErr) ||
(io==dupFNErr))         io = FSOpen( fn, *vRef, theRef);        return( (io==noErr) ||
(io=dupFNErr) );}

Try the following experiment: take an ordinary business letter or newspaper story.   Have a typist type it; dictate it accurately, giving all punctuation as you would want it to appear in the final copy; write it out in longhand.   Time all three.     Care to guess who wins, even working against the known deficiencies of QWERTY?  

But these arguments need never arise.    Not everything is a business letter, chunk of source code, shopping list, or quick annotation; there is every reason to give users all three input technologies and let them decide for themselves which to use when.    Just as voice and handwriting recognition technologies are maturing, though, "typing" technology also needs to mature, and that means it needs to go beyond the keyboard.    The Wlonk is a significant step in that direction.   

Why does it have such a funny name?

One of our early ideas was to use liquid-filled pads to give a better feel to the user when chording.    Not a bad idea in principle, but it proved excessively difficult in practice.    (The pads tended to leak after even moderate use.  ) 

In any case, at that stage of development we were looking around for a name for the device and one of us stumbled across the word "wlonk" in the Oxford English Dictionary -- the only dictionary big enough to bother with it.    Wlonk was gone even before Shakespeare's time; it seems to have drifted into and back out of the English language in less than a century.    Vaguely related to the German "zaftig" (juicy), it means haughty, magnificent, and full of sap.   

We giggled (it was toward the end of a very long day) and adopted it.    If nothing else, it was certainly unique.    Now, of course, we are sick of it.    If anyone can suggest a better name, please get in touch.   

wlonk@got.net

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