Cambridge, Mass. — The pattern of keys familiar to every typist - ASDFGHJKL; - may become a victim of the computer age. Last month the American National Standards Institute - a group of manufacturers, technical societies, consumer groups, and government agencies - accepted the Simplified Keyboard as the official alternative to the standard version.
Advocates of the Simplified system say it not only is faster than QWERTY (the nickname for the conventional keyboard), but is less fatiguing and produces fewer errors. With keyboard-related jobs expected to become the No. 1 occupation in the next decade, they say that a great leap in productivity can result from using the Simplified method.
The new Simplified Keyboard is based on a design copyrighted in 1932 by Prof. August Dvorak, an early researcher in ergonomics, or human factors, the science of harmonizing humans and their machines. Mr. Dvorak found that by placing the most-used keys on the ''home base'' row and paying attention to the rhythm between right and left hands, he could greatly improve speed and accuracy and reduce fatigue.
The QWERTY arrangement, by contrast, dates back to a 19th-century design. Inventor Christopher Sholes found his early mechanical typewriters jammed when operated at too great a speed. By experimentation he learned that spreading often-used keys around the keyboard forced the operator to slow down enough to prevent jamming. His design was chosen by Remington, the arms manufacturer, for its highly successful line of typewriters. By the turn of the century, QWERTY became the standard for the industry.
Today, electric typewriters and computers are free from the mechanical constraints that dictated QWERTY. So why make typing more difficult than it needs to be for modern operators? argues Virginia Russell, who heads the Dvorak International Federation. With the Simplified system, she points out, more than 4,000 words can be typed using just the home-base row. Only about 100 words are possible using that row in the QWERTY system.
''The fingers of an average (full-time) typist travel 16 miles in a day,'' she says. ''With the Simplified system, they travel about 1 mile.''
Among the converts to the Simplified method, says Mrs. Russell, are Barbara Blackburn, the current world speed-typing champion (180 words per minute) and Ralph Nader. (''He uses the Simplified keyboard, but on a manual typewriter. He doesn't like to waste electricity.'')
Typewriter manufacturer Smith-Corona has offered the Simplified Keyboard as an option for years, says Mrs. Russell. And International Business Machines, Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett-Packard Company, and other computer giants are poised on the sidelines ready to offer Simplified as soon as consumer demand warrants it, she says. The breakthrough company may be Apple Computer. According to Mrs. Russell, the Apple II and II-E personal computers already have the ability to switch to Simplified built into the keyboard.
Another convert is Dick Land, head of Instructional Laboratories at Harvard University. Together with a graduate student, he has made the Simplified method available on Harvard's mainframe computer. ''You just give one instruction (to the computer) and right away you're typing in Simplified,'' says Mr. Land.
''Alphanumeric character-stroke entry'' (typing) will be the way to talk to computers well into the next century, though a number of promising new methods are being explored, says Land. For example, some computers already can respond to simple voice commands. But fully flexible voice-activated systems are ''20 to 40 years away,'' he says. ''Wipe entry,'' another experimental system, involves passing the hand across a series of letters or symbols arranged for easy wordmaking. And ''chording,'' a technique being developed in Britain, permits several keys to be depressed at the same time.
But both of these more-exotic systems would require elaborate (and expensive) training for the operator. In contrast, he says, the Simplified Keyboard is easier for the beginner to learn than QWERTY. ''I know of nobody who has learned the Simplified Keyboard who has willingly ever gone back (to QWERTY),'' he says.
Ironically, Land says, the best study of the Simplified Keyboard was done at the University of Tokyo in 1980. The Japanese face a monumental task in feeding complex Japanese characters into computers. The study highly recommended the Dvorak system for use with English-language texts, and ''uses QWERTY as a model for how not to design a keyboard system,'' he says.
Estimates of productivity gains from using the Simplified Keyboard range as high as 60 percent, although Land says he believes 10 to 20 percent is a more accurate figure. The ease of switching between QWERTY and Simplified on computer terminals and the millions of people who will be learning new keyboard skills in the next decade may provide new impetus for Simplified, he says. ''All we need is a test bed where some junior manager sees all the money (the Simplified Keyboard) saves, and then it's going to go whoosh.''
Many of today's trained typists may resist the switch. ''If you've typed for years, you might not change,'' Mrs. Russell admits. ''But your neighbor who's never typed might (learn Simplified), your kids might.''