The keyboard is, for the majority of computer users, the prime method of data entry and interaction with the machine.
Its design becomes very important when you realize how many hours you spend pounding at it.

Keyboards could be classified (if you where an insane UI person and delighted in boring tasks) along many lines of which the most important are:

  1. Key layout: The spatial disposition of the keys is very important in blind typing. The most common (and I am talking about keyboards for Latin-based alphabets, excluding Russian, Arabic and other alphabetic scripts) is without doubt the QWERTY keyboard, followed by the Dvorak keyboard. There are many national variants, designed to accomodate the special characters for áccèñtéd lëttèrs and local currencies. In fact, keyboard layout is a huge mess, whith every producer doing its little bit to confuse the matter and making keyboard mapping (the province of programs like xmodmap) a daunting task.
    Also, keyboard layouts differ in the number of function keys, the size of keys like Enter, Tab, Shift, Alt, Control, Delete and Backspace, and also in the presence and shape of a numeric keypad.
  2. Key technology: there is a good chance that the keyboard you are using right now has a little electrical switch underneath every key. The mechanics of said switch make up for a large part of the "feel" of the keyboard. Switches vary in clickiness, loudness and force required to actuate them. Usually you want a strong initial resistance, a lower but constant resistance in the travel phase, and a firm "bottom" end when travel is completed. Usually the keyboard clicks when the key is released, with the exception of the IBM clicky keyboards that click twice (a great ego booster).
    Another keyboard technology (membrane keyboard) uses little "bubbles" in a plastic film. This type of switch has advantages: it is cheap to produce, easy to make water-proof and it can be printed on. But it has one major defect, that's to say it does not move very much when pressed. The user remains in doubt, because there is little tactile feedback. I have heard this kind of keys compared to "little dead sea animals".
    This makes blind typing difficult, and in fact restricts this kind of key to devices that have to operate in hostile environments (with water and grease and dust ...). It was also seen in some home computers like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the ZX 81 (in those cases it was combined with a data entry system guaranteed to drive you nuts).
  3. Keyboard shape: it has been observed that the standard keyboard shape (rectangular, keys in a row) forces your wrists to be in a angled position for hours at a time. This is supposed to be bad.
    An answer to this problem are the various "split" designs in which the keyboard is divided into two parts, one per hand. Pioneer in this field was Apple, with a split keyboard where you could modify the angle and distance between the two parts. The keyboard was not a huge success, and Microsoft proceeded to snap up the idea, make it cheaper to produce, and turn it into a success, with the Microsoft Natural Keyboard: notice that the two parts are rigidly connected.
    This design approach reaches the extreme of splitting the keyboard into two parts that you are supposed to bolt to the armrests of your chair. Very Star Trek.
Improper keyboard design and use are a big source of RSI, including the carpal tunnel syndrome.
An alternative idea is the chording keyboard, usually having a small number (e.g. five) of big keys. Characters are formed by playing a chord. This reduces wrist motion to nil, and allows incredible typing speeds. This kind of keyboard is used on shorthand machines like those used in courts.

see also: AT Keyboard Enhanced AT Keyboard

Term used to distinguish synthesizers with internal loudspeakers (often dinky such) from real synthesizers, which have no internal speakers. Also used in plural to denote a range of instruments with black and white keys, such as Hammond organs, pianos, and synthesizers, as in "Give a big hand for Joe Blow on keyboards!"

History of the Keyboard:

The first practical typewriter was built in 1867 by Christopher Sholes. Remington and Sons, makers of guns in Ilion, NY, put a successful model on the market in 1874. Some early typewriter models had used toy building blocks for keys. These original typewriters did have their keys in more or less alphabetical order, which seemed to make sense at the time. The one little problem with this arrangement was that the early typists became so proficient that the keys would jam up because they typed too fast.

To slow down the typists, the keys were rearranged into a diabolically difficult pattern. Shole's first typewriter was designed to be used with two fingers, but now typists had to learn to use all ten fingers with the rearranged pattern. The left hand does about 57 percent of the typing, and the right only 43 percent. The three weakest and least coordinated fingers, the two pinkies and the left ring finger make far more than their share of strokes, and to type the most common words one must move up and down between rows. Even with this difficult key arrangement, some typists are still able to type over 170 words per minute on manual typewriters!

You would think, in today's age of word processors and the elimination of carriage bars, that someone would design a more efficient keyboard to speed up productivity and reduce typing fatigue and frustration.

Actually, someone already did. In 1936, August Dvorak researched and designed a more useable keyboard where 70 percent of the typing is done in the home row (for the QWERTY users, its the row that starts with ASDFGHJ...), 57 percent is done with the right hand, and the stronger fingers do more of the work. Studies showed that the overall finger movement with Dvorak's pattern would be reduced by at least 10x.

Why didn't this wonderful new design catch on? Dvorak had an order to supply the US Navy with two thousand (2,000) of these typewriters just as World War II started. However, all of the manufacturers were devoted to wartime productions, and so the order never got filled. It never caught on after the war, either.

Today we have computers and printers capable of processing and printing thousands of words a second, but we can't use our 21st-century technology to its fullest potential, because we still cling to a 19th-century mentality when it comes to keyboards.

Typing Trivia:
Longest word typed with the left hand only: "stewardesses"
Longest word typed with the top row only: "typewriter"
No words can be made from the bottom row, due to lack of vowels.
The longest word that can be typed without a true vowel is "rhythm" and the longest word that can be made without typing the same letter twice is "uncopyrightable".

The Book of Totally Useless Knowledge, by M. Vorhees
IBM Research Labs
Thanks to fellow E2 user TheOneDM6667 for help!

The computer industry has two target markets: on one hand, the computer industry manufactors consumer electronics, a fancy word for flashy toys for those with disposable money. The other market the computer industry markets to is Information Technology professionals, and power users, both people who see computing equipment as vital infrastructure, and who are knowledgable about the utility, rather than the appearence, of what they are buying. This dichotomy of purpose can even be seen in the keyboard, one of the most unexciting of periphreals.

The keyboard I am using now has the same layout and functionality of the keyboard on my first computer, although there has been some minor changes over the years, mostly dealing with changes in key shape and size. But for the most part, people don't want to relearn how to type, so companies that make keyboards must make them generically, but at the same time, must somehow make them different to capture impress consumers.

There has been technical innovation in keyboards over the years, mostly having to do with the way they are connected to computers, and most of this growth has been driven by technological neccesity.

  • The earliest keyboards were terminal style, connecting to a monitor that in turn connected back to a mainframe. These keyboards had an RJ-11 jack. These are very rarely seen, although I come across them at work.
  • The AT connector, which was about two centimeters across and round, was standard on desktop PCs from the mid-80s up until the last AT super socket 7 motherboards became obsolete, in the past few years.
  • The PS2 connector, smaller than the AT, and identical with the PS2 connector on mice, was introduced by IBM on (surprisingly) the PS2 model of computer, and became common by the mid-90s and standard around the year 2000.
  • Various wireless and infrared keyboards were tried for a while, and are still made. For whatever reason, these never caught on as a major trend, perhaps because they were marketed to appeal to people's sense of niftiness, rather than out of real technological growth.
  • USB keyboards are becoming more common, although whether they will replace PS2 remains to be seen. Whether USB in keyboards is being driven by technology, or being driven by fadishness, also remains to be seen.

So, if technological growth of keyboards is slow, technical, and unexciting, what can you do to market your keyboard. Several approaches have been tried, including:

  • Keyboards with built in buttons that automatically launched a web browser, e-Mail application, or some other such function. These were popular around the time the internet first became widely popular, and were probably driven by companies desire to present the internet as integrated all the way from the keyboard to the specific site the user was going to. As users became more savvy, this much hand holding was generally seen as unneccesary.
  • Ergonomic keyboards also seemed to become popular in the mid to late 90s, under the promise of reducing the strains and pains associated with too much typing. I am not sure of the medical evidence for the healing powers of these keyboards, but consumers never seemed to really catch on to them much.
  • Infrared and wireless keyboards have been discussed above. The niftiness and technical utility of these never seemed to sway consumers too much.
  • Do you remember the Barbie computer? Or the Hot Wheels one? Those had their own unique keyboards, and there was a number of other fun, brightly colored keyboards, designed mostly for children. These were never mass-marketed, though, and are a footnote to history.
  • Black is the new beige. In the past few years, computer companies have introduced black computers, black monitors, and of course, black keyboards. Notice that changing the color of the plastic does not really add a lot of functionality, but it does break twenty years of beige monotony.

So, while keyboards seem to develop slowly technically, there does seem to be a few gimmicks that companies toss in from time to time to make their keyboards seem more exciting. These methods on the whole seem to have met with lukewarm interest from consumers, so it is perhaps best in the future if keyboard makers just keep their keyboards generic and standardized.

Key"board` (?), n.

The whole arrangement, or one range, of the keys of an organ, typewriter, etc.


© Webster 1913.

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