Five Modest Proposals for Improving the Computer Keyboard

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Feb. 1 2012 7:10 AM

KILL THE CAPS LOCK

And four other modest proposals for improving the contemporary computer keyboard.

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As it stands, the exclamation point lives in the upper left-hand corner of the keyboard as the shift option on the “1” key, surrounded by things like the @ symbol, the tilde, and the letter “Q.” The period and question mark reside at the bottom right of the keyboard. By moving the exclamation point to the position now taken by the forward slash and placing it on the same key as the question mark, all of the sentence-enders would reside in the same general area. That makes sense. Right? Hell yes!

4. In discussing step four, it’s necessary to return to the iPhone, while at the same time giving a nod to the expanding influence social media has on computing. The nifty “.com” key the iPhone offers users makes good sense, even in an era of autofill-aided web browsing. Anyone writing about or discussing the Internet types “.com” often. At the same time, email—and more recently, Twitter’s more than 100 million active users—has helped make the “@” symbol more important, and more frequently typed, than at any other point in history. Bring those two modern computing realities together, and, voilà, a new key: an @ button with “.com” as its shift option. Just like you shouldn’t have to press three keys at once to type an em-dash, you shouldn’t have to hit shift to make an @ symbol appear. Thanks to step number four, it just got a lot easier to send an email to a friend relaying another friend’s Twitter handle or email address.

5. As for the fifth and final tweak, it seems only fair to cede the floor to, well, tons of folks who have keyboard-related pet peeves. When asked for one small-scale keyboard fix, respondents from all walks of life polled in a completely unscientific fashion chimed in swiftly and with great passion. The resulting gripes and fixes ran the gamut. Many professed a desire to remove seldom-used keys. And a large number of those in this camp, effectively highlighting the differences between Mac and PC keyboards, suggested getting rid of keys that appear on the far right of a PC board but have already been phased out by Apple—buttons such as scroll lock, for instance, and pause/break.

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According to Cornell University ergonomics professor and alternative keyboard design expert Alan Hedge, calls for the removal of keys should not be surprising. “There is a lot of built in redundancy in keyboards,” Hedge says, calling out the number pad on PC keyboards as an example. “You could reduce the keyboard down quite a lot and still have the same functionality.” Speed typing celebrity and recent Ultimate Typing Championship winner Sean Wrona agrees. He says he has the keyboard layout mapped into his brain, and wouldn’t change much, but confided that the right-hand shift, alt, and control keys wouldn’t be missed if they disappeared from the board prior to his next race.

Not everyone is in favor of streamlining, though. Anil Dash, founding director of Expert Labs and blogger extraordinaire, says he misses some of the keys Apple has removed. “And I love the anachronistic keyboard leftovers like system request,” he adds, praising the open-ended nature of such keys. “They track back to obscure hardware decisions made in 1980 at IBM—how many other vestiges of that era do we still have?” Writer and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen is a bit more focused on the practical. He wants a dedicated ellipses key. (“I just finished a book that contains 165 ellipses,” Andersen says. “So why not a key that with a single stroke types the three (or four) periods and correctly spaces them as well?”) And Chirag Mehta, founder and developer of an iPad application that aims to make typing easier for those with disabilities, was one of many who suggested adding keys for the copy, paste, and cut functions.

Everybody, it seems, has a preferred keyboard tweak. But the most-requested one-key change involves yet another button that appears nowhere on the Mac board: the dreaded insert key. Similar to the caps lock key, “insert” causes all sorts of damage when pressed by mistake. Typists intending to hit the backspace button only to graze the insert key residing immediately to its right on many keyboards unleash a silent killer that wipes out existing words and phrases. This hostile action stems from what’s known as overtype mode. Instead of the cursor simultaneously moving all characters to the right as new letters are typed, the new characters overwrite letters—as well as words, sentences, brilliant prose, complicated mathematical formulas, important phone numbers, and other important content—that already exist.

There are a few instances when the insert key can be useful—while filling out certain forms that already include words in the relevant boxes, for instance—but these do not justify its continued existence as a dedicated key. In the most recent versions of Microsoft Word, the insert key is disabled by default. That’s a start. But it doesn’t address the button itself.

Again, there’s always the hacking option, but enough already, keyboard gods. The people have spoken. Show no mercy. Treat the insert key as it has treated the already typed words of millions worldwide: Make it disappear.

Do you have a most-hated keyboard key, a key that you would like to see added, or a relatively simple, intuitive keyboard fix whose time has come? Submit your preferred tweak ideas in the comments. I’ll highlight the best suggestions in a follow-up post.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.