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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Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Perhaps it should have occurred to me years ago, but it wasn’t until recently that I fully realized that everybody hates something about their computer keyboard. I was in the company of several family members and friends, and had just mistyped my Gmail password for the 458th time in calendar 2011. I knew straightaway what had gone wrong—caps lock was depressed by accident—but instead of simply taking my lumps and re-entering my password, I vented: “Is there anything on the computer keyboard more annoying than the caps lock key?” 

Yes, my companions told me matter-of-factly, there is. Thirty minutes of conversation ensued, with each participant attempting to outdo the others with tales of keyboard frustration and fiery screeds relegating various keys to eternal damnation. The conversation was painfully nerdy, yet cathartic—and eye-opening.

Since that initial conversation, I’ve spoken with dozens of folks about computer keyboard annoyances, and I’ve compiled a list of five small-scale adjustments that would greatly improve the typing experience. My goal in compiling this list is narrowly tailored. I don’t want to fundamentally change the way we type—I don’t have time to learn the Dvorak keyboard, and I suspect you don’t either. These are small, one-key fixes that could make typing easier, faster, and less prone to error.

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1. For starters, please allow me to reiterate the following: CAPS LOCK IS THE WORST! It is of very little use to the average citizen. Nearly everything that results from depressing this key is annoying.

While it’s important to consider the interests of groups that rely on the key (those with disabilities that make it difficult to press more than one key at a time, for instance, and people engaged in professions that frequently use all-uppercase text), caps lock also inherently favors yell-y Internet commenters, people who design terrible flyers, and others who deserve little consideration. For the rest of us, the key is a nuisance, its prime real estate leading us to depress it unintentionally and often unwittingly. The next thing you know, you’re submitting to a security-question inquisition from your banking institution, trying desperately to prove your identity having thrice entered your case-sensitive password incorrectly.

The utility derived from not having to hold down “shift” when drafting venomous complaint emails to Time Warner Cable does not justify all those needlessly mistyped words in other contexts. So, as a first-step move aimed at improving the keyboard, let’s scrap the caps lock key altogether. (Disabling it by using the Keyboard tab in System Preferences on a Mac, or specialized anti–caps lock software for PCs, doesn’t result in any freed up space on the board for new keys.) For the serially furious or enthusiastic, there would of course still be a caps lock function: Upper-casers could use a new key-combo or, for instance, access the function as iPhone users already do, by quickly tapping the shift button twice. Google eliminated the caps lock key from its laptops, and though the company replaced it with a branded search key that can still be annoying when pressed by mistake, it’s high time for other computer makers to open up that space for new, less-infuriating keys. 

2. One change that should have been made to the keyboard decades ago is the addition of a dedicated em-dash key. An em-dash is meant to indicate an abrupt change of thought within the context of a sentence. Writers of all stripes use them often—sometimes too often—but they can be a real pain in the carpal to type.

To make an em-dash using a Mac, you have to do this: First, press the option key. Next, while holding down “option,” press “shift.” Now, while keeping those other two buttons pressed, hit the hyphen key. It’s too much—three keys for one mark. On a PC, there’s a handy “shortcut.” Simply hold down “alt” and then type 0151 on the far right number pad. (Next challenge: safecracking.) Although some popular word processing programs will automatically create an em-dash when you type two consecutive hyphens, that’s no reason to prolong the mark’s banishment from the board.

(At least partially because there’s no dedicated em-dash button on the keyboard, people mess up this mark in many annoying ways. Some use two hyphens--like so. It’s not an attractive replacement. Other typists resort to a single hyphen as a stand-in for an em-dash-like so. That’s just confusing.)

Software programs such as DoubleCommand and Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator allow users to remap keys by adding new characters and symbols in place of existing ones, or by moving letters around on the board. But should typists be forced to hack their keyboards in order to get an em-dash typed in a single step? It’s time to create a permanent button on the keyboard for this commonly used mark.

3. And while we’re reassigning keys, here’s an easy one for keyboard improvement step number three: Put the exclamation point on the same key as the question mark!

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.

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 Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

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