Thursday, December 16, 2010

Farewell to the Caps Lock Key

This photo is in the public domain. has an interesting and thorough take on the history of the caps lock key, nestled just to the north of the left shift key on just about every keyboard in the world.

The crux of the article: Google, in introducing a new notebook computer, has replaced the caps lock key with a search key, acknowledging that the little-used key is just taking up space on the keyboard because of an archaic link to the venerable typewriter, from which, of course, the caps lock key originates.

Writer Christopher Beam sums up the caps lock key’s perseverance nicely:
So why has Caps Lock stuck around so long? The simplest explanation is technological inertia. Computer companies have long been obsessed with reverse compatibility, or the ability of any new product to support old software. People are more likely to buy a new computer, the thinking goes, if they can still access their old files and don't have to change their habits. As a result, computers have almost always been additive: more keys, more programs, more functions. That was the logic behind carrying over the Caps Lock key from typewriters to personal computers, and every new keyboard designer has probably thought the same thing: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Beam handily points out that the caps lock isn’t the only bit of history clinging to our keyboards. For example, I haven’t used the “function” keys since I had to give up WordPerfect back in 1993 – an anachronism Beam points out. Yes, I could learn many of the handy keyboard shortcuts (my boss is a big advocate of this). But until I can undo a Shift-F3 without having to go back in and insert capital letters where capital letters ought to be, I’ll do things the old-fashioned ways, thank you. Heck, I never even used the two function keys provided on my Tandy Color Computer 3, back in the late 1980s. He points out those keys and others, used frequently in DOS-based programs, just don’t serve a function outside the programming realm these days. But it all goes back to what’s been said thusfar about the caps lock key: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Some, of course, do. It’s been pointed out that the QWERTY keyboard layout is an even more annoying typewriter leftover, with the left hand doing more of the work just because more than a century ago some engineer had to figure out how to slow down the typists who were jamming the key bars together because they were typing too fast with a standard keyboard layout. Acolytes of the Dvorak keyboard point out their layout is much easier to use. Much easier, of course, if, like me, you didn’t learn to touch type on an electric typewriter with a QWERTY layout. So as far as that goes, my keyboard ain’t broke.

Some of the new keyboard buttons, I like. I love that I’ve got a mute and volume control right on the keyboard. A few others I’d like:
  • CD/DVD eject button
  • USB device eject button (that would bring up the menu so I can select which device to eject, rather than using the mouse, or simply eject the device if only one is detected)
  • Browser open/close button. That’s what Google has done with its new keyboard. Good on them.

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