Keyboards are dumb (and I make my living with them)

I have a lull in stuff to do at work and I looked at my keyboard and realized that it is quite an outdated and unfriendly piece of equipment. A line from Atom and His Package’s song on the metric system comes to mind, ” You’re drunk with your tradition / That has no validity”. Ever wonder what the scroll lock key really does (was used to allow scrolling text around the then small screens with the arrow keys)? Ever actually used it for anything? Me neither. So why is it still being placed on our keyboard even though it hasn’t been used since the 1980’s.

Most things we use are engineered for a particular use, the shifter in your car is made just to shift and P, R, N, and D all make pretty good sense. The keyboard sitting in front of you though doesn’t make sense because it is meant as a general purpose input device and this leads to a boatload of problems.

In Microsoft Word, know what the F7 button does? It brings up the spellchecker. The only way you would know that is if you have it memorized, not because it makes sense to associate function key 7 with checking your spelling. Any guesses on what the other function keys do?

The shift key is another marvel all in itself, with the addition of one key the number of available functions available on a keyboard double! So in Word, when you hit shift+F7, it no longer brings up the spellchecker, this time you get the thesaurus. In some programs like Photoshop, I’ve seen some functions being tied to triple and quadruple key presses, good for people highly proficient in the program, bad for people trying to learn it.

Some keyboard functions have become standardized simply because of the location of the keys themselves! Ctrl+X cuts text and places it memory, Ctrl+V inserts that text wherever the curser is on the screen, and Ctrl+Z undos the process. There is no real meaning tied to the Z, X, and V keys, they just happen to be the easiest to press while holding down the left Ctrl key with your pinky. I feel sorry for people without a left pinky because it would make copying and pasting a pain.

So what’s the problem? This abstract relationship between buttons and functions is not user friendly. The longer things stay the same the more people get locked into it and that makes changing things even harder. I think our biggest hope for change lies with laptops and smaller form factor devices that don’t have the real estate luxury for extraneous buttons.

Have you had any problems with your keyboard or experienced difficulty figuring out what keys actually do what?

10 Replies to “Keyboards are dumb (and I make my living with them)”

  1. Actually it reminds me more of a line from the Atom and His Package song: “Sting Cannot Possibly Be the Same Guy Who Was in The Police”

    Ok so that song’s an instrumental… But it does have a sweet title though not as sweet as my all time favorite: “People in this Computer Lab Should Shut the Hell up”

    That song will always hold a special place in my heart, if only it had been released when I was in High School! :)

    The mouse is something which regularly pisses me off, even the evoluent ergo-mouse didn’t work as I’d have imagined it should’ve!

  2. While all the odd associations between buttons and functions that you point out seem valid…they’re really just additions to the basic keyboard. The primary function of the keyboard is to type words (something which requires all 26 letters). Additionally the numbers and operators (!?, . :; ” ‘) are needed. Add in the space bar, shift, tab, and enter, and you’ve got a lot of buttons that are necessary just for typing (and I think we can all agree on these primary buttons).

    Everything beyond that I think is up for debate. There are two areas of discussion: the physical layout of the hardware, and the application’s implementation of that hardware. I’m not sure you can blame Microsoft for making F7 the dictionary when there is no dictionary button (and it tells you the shortcuts in the drop down menus). A random function button is a better option than nothing at all. Most ctrl commands I don’t have a problem with. It’s more efficient and requires less finger movement to use ctrl-c and ctrl-v than to have some sort of independent copy and paste keys. Don’t some of the fancy keyboards even put those words on the letter keys?

    Like you mentioned, the keyboard is a general input device, which means it has to work with thousands of programs. Sure someone could develop a photoshop keyboard with lots of photoshop shortcuts built-in…but then do you swap it for your word processing keyboard when you need to type a letter? If there is a market for anything I’d say it would be add-on devices like the .

  3. i know, my keyboard is an english keyboard…but i’d still like to figure out how to make an ñ without having to go to and choose it from the “other” drop down menu and copy and paste it (ctrl+c, ctrl+v :-)) how do i make that happen?

  4. Ah ha Amy! You have wandered into the area of how characters are coded to be understood by the computer. Each time you press a key on the keyboard, a signal is sent to the computer with a code for that character. Your computer has no idea what the letter “u” or pipe “|” character is, those are there for human understanding.

    All characters (even the ñ, n with squigly for us Americans) have a code associated with them that is specified by the omnipotent ASCII table. This lists all the codes that translate human readable characters into usable computer codes. On this page you should be interested in the Decimal column (the hexidecimal, octal, and HTML codes are interesting but I’ll leave that for another day).

    Go down to the extended codes table and at decimal value 164 you see your ñ!!!! I just typed that without copying and pasting it!!! A little known secret is that you can input ASCII codes with your keyboard by holding the ALT key and entering the ASCII code. So for your ñ you would hold ALT then type in 164 on the number keypad on the right of the keyboard (it doesn’t work with the row of numbers for some probably good reason).

    So the short answer to your question is ALT+164. There’s also some other useful spanish characters with accents to help your spanish be grammaticaly correct.

  5. ñ YES!!!!!! ññññññññ►4..oops…ñ. thanks a lot! that is a big table…here’s something odd…the accented vowels á í ó and ú are decimals 160-163. but é is decimal 130. interesting arrangement. by the way, i typed all of those symbols using the ASCII code. :-) thanks a lot for your help!! you have pointed me in a direction that will make letter-writing much quicker.

  6. or… Start -> Run ->(type in:)charmap ->OK and you can visually select the *strange* characters you’d like to use (by font) and copy and paste them into any document This will also give you the ASCII values (ALT + Number Pad combo) to manually type them into documents.

  7. Amazing post. My class mates and I were just talking about this the other night. Also your page looks great on my old sidekick. And thats rare. Keep it up.

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