The lost art of keyboard innovation

Microsoft recently showed off a new keyboard design, the Sculpt Comfort, which splits the spacebar in two. One segment serves as a normal spacebar while the other segment can be designated as a backspace key. This is probably the most revolutionary keyboard design change since the Dvorak keyboard designed by my namesake August Dvorak in the 1930s.

This announcement brought back memories of my famous rant from the 1990s in which I moaned and groaned for 1,200 words about the Caps Lock key. This is a key that should be nowhere near any of the normal keys because typists often ACCIDENTALLY HIT IT AND THE NEXT THING THEY KNOW, THEY ARE SCREAMING.

Exactly why some smart keyboard company does not move this key someplace else is beyond me.

The last keyboard innovator was a small company called Northgate Computers. Back in the late 1980s, during the DOS era, it moved the asterisk to make it easier for people to type "*.*" without having to search for the key.

I think we should also reconsider the F-keys to make them permanent. F1, for example, is universally a help key. In every application I know of, it serves this function. So why doesn't it say "help" rather than F1?

In most situations, the F3 through the F12 keys are never used. Why can't we designate a permanent use to at least half of them? F2 should be "deal" since everyone plays solitaire. F3 should be ".com" so nobody would ever have to type it again.

There is no legitimate reason for the lack of keyboard innovation. I have seen some design-it-yourself keyboards, which were kind of inventive, but that is like a custom keyboard. I'm talking about the everyday keyboard you find in all offices. Do we have to stick with what is actually an IBM keyboard from the 1970s? I don't think so.

Ironically, IBM still continued calling the shots for innovation. As far as I know, IBM introduced the F11 and F12 keys for specific programs nobody uses. IBM also came out with the little nipple-ish TrackPoint device for its laptops. This can act as a mouse and is something I commonly use, even on desktop machines, because it allows me to keep my hands on the keyboard at all times.

But none of this is genuine innovation. It's merely modification. And while moving the Caps Lock key might also be seen as mere modification, I consider it a major change – and a necessary one. I recall one Toshiba notebook that actually enlarged the left Shift key and shrunk the Caps Lock key, but nobody, including Toshiba, followed suit. For the life of me, I have never figured out why this key isn't buried with the useless Scroll, Lock, Break, and Pause keys. Do you ever use those?

As much as it will pain people, it appears that our remaining best bet is Microsoft, which has indeed tried new ideas and implementations, including its popular ergonomic keyboard that many people swear by. Now we see this backspace/spacebar. I expect the Microsoft will continue to experiment and maybe, just maybe, it will get rid of the ridiculous Caps Lock key.