Improving the computer keyboard

The standard arrangement of the computer keyboard is a holdover from the mechanical limitations of ancient typewriters.

The standard arrangement of the computer keyboard is a holdover from the mechanical limitations of ancient typewriters.

Research suggests that people might be able to learn to type with greater efficiency on alternative keyboard designs.

However, even a slight change to any keyboard layout is seen as a risky move by top computer designers.

Lenovo put nearly a year of research into two design changes that debuted on an updated ThinkPad laptop last month. No, not the thinner, lighter form or the textured touchpad -- rather, the extra-large “Delete” and “Escape” keys.

It may seem like a small change, but David Hill, vice president of corporate identity and design at Lenovo, points out, “Any time you start messing around with the keyboard, people get nervous.”

Computers get smaller and faster every year, but keyboard design remains largely stuck in the 19th century. When Beijing-based Lenovo, which bought IBM’s personal-computer business in 2005, looked into improving the keyboard on the new ThinkPad T400s, a US$1,600-and-up laptop for businesspeople, it knew it had to proceed with caution.

To understand Lenovo’s concern, turn the clock back to the 1800s.

Back then, fast typing would jam typewriters, so a keyboard layout that slowed down flying fingers was devised.

The commonly used “A’’ key, for example, was banished to the spot under the relatively uncoordinated left pinky.

Typewriter technology evolved. Mainframe computing led to function keys and others of uncertain use today. The PC era dawned. Yet many laws of keyboard layout remain sacred, like the 19-millimeter distance between the centers of the letter keys.

Tom Hardy, who designed the original IBM PC of 1981, said companies have tried many times to change the sizes of keys.

That first PC had a smaller “Shift” key than IBM’s popular Selectric typewriter did, and it was placed in a different spot, in part because the industry didn’t think computers would replace typewriters for high-volume typing tasks.

IBM reversed course with the next version to quiet the outcry from skilled touch-typists.

“Customers have responded with a resounding, ‘Don’t fool with the key unless you can improve it,” said Hardy, now a design strategist based in Atlanta.

Ends

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