It?s odd that while voices are raised and arms are waved over important stuff like user interfaces and making things easier to use, the same doesn?t happen about the computer keyboard. It?s odd because the keyboard is how we communicate with the world if we can?t talk to people: the vast majority of books, news and visual entertainment start at a keyboard and it?s certainly how we communicate with computers.
But we just tap away on it, blithely ignoring its failings or lack of development. It is probably a sign of our apathy towards the keyboard that hardly anyone noticed the latest development ? the Windows 95 key.
Despite the US gaining most of the credit for the typewriter, the first recorded attempt to produce a writing machine was made by the British inventor Henry Mill, back in 1714. After that, American William Austin Burt had a go in 1829 and in 1833 a patent was given to the French inventor Xavier Progin, for a machine that for the first time had a separate lever to actuate an arm (or typebar) connected to a separate letter or symbol. The typewriter was taking shape.
During the 1850s and 1860s many inventors tried to produce a workable typewriter, but none succeeded until 1868. This led to the Sholes & Glidden typewriter which was produced by gun manufacturer E Remington & Sons in 1874 ? the first typewriter to have the Qwerty keyboard.
Electric typewriters have been with us since 1925, ironically with the market being dominated by IBM. Thus the keyboard we know today comes from the early Remington typewriter via IBM.
The IBM input didn?t stop at the IBM electric typewriter: those with long memories will remember the 83-key IBM keyboard with 10 function keys down the left-hand side that came with the PC. This was followed by the 84-key AT keyboard (with the sys req key being the addition) which was the first to have the three LED status lights. It wasn?t long after this that we saw the AT-E keyboard with 101 keys, which included the now standard 12 function keys across the top.
Today, the IBM keyboard is all but dead ? or at least the original IBM keyboard is dead. This was a mechanical affair with springs and metal bits that needed care, attention to detail and bucket loads of patience to make and repair. This keyboard, coveted by lots of users, is hard to come by because of its cost. These days we are looking at pressure switches that are sophisticated in themselves but simpler and cheaper to make.
The problem confronting keyboard manufacturers is that the key needs to be pressed and the connection made while sending tactile information back to the user and not breaking their fingers at the same time. Thus the actuation point of the switch generally occurs at 2.5mm of its travel with 60g or so of force to press the key down, although the travel of the switch is around 4mm to allow the fingers to ?slow up? after actuating the key. It is the manipulation of these specifications that make up the ?feel? of the keyboard.
All the same, there is still not the kind of turnover in the market that there is in the mouse market for instance. It still seems that people are buying a PC with a keyboard and not looking to change that until something goes wrong. Although when they do change it seems that they are more likely to move to a better keyboard. Some dealers are trying to educate users to look more at the keyboard they are getting, but say it is an uphill task.
This education is helped by developments in the products on the market, which raise awareness in the user base. Obviously one of the main recent developments in the market is the ergonomic keyboard. And number one in that market has to be the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, although despite the positive press it has received, some of the keyboard manufacturers believe it isn?t the best ergonomic keyboard on the market. Having said that, it would be churlish in the extreme to play down its importance. It was with the Natural Keyboard that Microsoft made it OK for the rest of the market to produce ergonomic keyboards and it has helped raise the issue of repetitive strain injury (RSI) with users ? before they get it.
All the same, that is just an approach to the design of a keyboard. The actual development of the technology behind the designs is more or less done and dusted (in the general market anyway). This means it is simpler to develop keyboards for different applications.
Despite being not quite as simple as Lego, it isn?t that far off, which gives developers a lot more flexibility when trying to solve awkward user problems. Some manufacturers support different layouts by supplying extra keys for extra functions or giving users new key caps that allow the keyboard to be manually reconfigured ? all that is needed to make this work is a new keyboard driver. Now that the hardware side is sorted the software is just starting up.
Companies are now building software functionality to match new hardware that they are building in. A new level of expertise is growing ? writing keyboard drivers. This is driven by the understanding that if you need to do ?more? with your keyboard (specialised functions and the like) then you will somehow need to handle that at the driver level ? the keyboard port never being envisaged as anything more.
A lot of companies are turning to software to get more out of their keyboards, and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the companies that has allowed this is Microsoft.
The Dvorak keyboard has just seen a new lease of life (mostly in the US though) since Microsoft decided to include drivers for it in Windows 95 and it is the creation of keyboard drivers that is focusing a lot of manufacturers.
It is worth mentioning that while the Dvorak keyboard isn?t a particularly big market at the moment, the single-hand version of the keyboard is growing in popularity with disabled people now that it is supported in Windows 95. This version has a different layout again, but is, at least, optimised for one hand operation, opening up the PC to a large market among the disabled.
If it isn?t specialised functions and layouts for the keys then it?s bits of extra kit being built into the keyboard themselves. Complaints from users about lack of space on their desks has led several manufactures to develop pointing devices that are built into the keyboard unit. They are usually devices developed for the notebook market ? either finger sensitive pressure pads or a standard tracker ball. It doesn?t stop there though. There are now keyboards that have scanners built into them, allowing users to feed copy into it and have OCR software translate it. Either that or it turns the PC into a fax machine.
Elsewhere there are growing developments in the wireless market with both radio and infra-red devices becoming available. These markets are taking some time to develop though as ?typing at a distance? needs a larger monitor (so what is being typed can be seen from further away).
And in the future it is said that we will be letting the universal serial bus (USB) take the strain. The idea behind USB is to do away with all proprietary ports at the back of PC systems, making it easier to connect peripherals. No more dedicated keyboard, mouse, joystick, printer ports. The plan is to have just one or two USB ports that let peripherals share access to the PC?s system resources via a 1.5Mbit/s bidirectional data path which allows hot plugging (that is you can plug and unplug them while the machine is still switched on).
While this sounds good, we have to question the good sense of plugging in a simple keyboard to a 1.5Mbit port when it gets by perfectly well on its current system port. All the same, the USB will allow more functionality in the shape of useful peripherals to be built into the keyboard. And we will see yet another revolution in a 125-year-old technology ? a printer for example. Then you would have a keyboard and a printing device connected together in the same unit. But would the idea ever catch on?
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