Last Saturday, I wrote about (and linked to) a Slate article about the Dvorak keyboard and its apparent superiority to the standard “QWERTY” keyboard. Many thanks to tins reader T.A. for a pointer to this Reason magazine article from June of 1996 debunking the Dvorak myth.
The article is a lengthy and entirely worthwhile read about the myth about markets being inefficient at selecting superior technologies. Often cited in these discussions, note authors Stan Leibowitz and Stephen Margolis (economics professors at U. Texas/Dallas and North Carolina State U., respectively), are examples like Beta vs. VHS, Windows vs. Mac, and QWERTY vs. Dvorak.
The authors focus on the concept of “path dependence” – the economics theory that past market successes dictate future market choices, eventually locking consumers into choices that are increasingly inappropriate. In this theory, luck plays as large a part as superiority in determining a winner.
Where “path dependence” theory goes wrong is in ignoring other factors that affect market choices – questioning the assertion that the choices consumers are locked into are in fact inappropriate. (Leibowitz and Margolis use Windows as an example: the Mac OS may have been superior to DOS, but Windows didn’t require new hardware purchases as well as new software… so a switch to Mac would have required a far higher investment for consumers. Had the Mac OS run on Intel machines, it’s entirely possible it would have won head-to-head against Windows.)
What’s really remarkable is the systematic debunking of the alleged claims of the Dvorak keyboard’s superiority. Check it out.