Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

“Better” Apple keyboard only half a solution

It looks like one of the talking, biting typewriters from David Cronenberg’s film Naked Lunch, but Apple wants you to take its new Adjustable Keyboard seriously. It is, after all, the first split keyboard from a major manufacturer, a keyboard that opens outward to meet your hands at the angle they naturally form. Meant to spare you from turning your hands and crimping the delicate tendons and nerves in the wrist, the rotation feature sounds like just the ticket for skilled, high-speed typists. But if you are one of those people, the Adjustable Keyboard’s other features might stop you in your typing tracks.

Apple doesn’t bill the keyboard’s adjustability as a means of reducing the overuse injuries – like carpal-tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and tenosynovitis – that are on the increase among office workers. The company says merely that the keyboard “helps your wrists stay in a neutral position for comfort and typing ease.” A “neutral” typing position, though, is a tricky thing to manage because your hands can move in relation to the wrists in three dimensions – horizontally inward or outward; up or down; and by rotating the thumbs toward the earth or the sky.

By opening the Apple keyboard, you help neutralize you hands’ horizontal displacement, and adjusting the heights of your chair and desk takes care of up-and-down variation. But like all flat keyboards, Apple’s new model does nothing to affect that third dimension of hand posture during typing – pronation, or roating the thumbs downward so they’re parallel with the keyboard.

And that, according to Paul Prébin, product manager for the keyboard at Apple in California, is a result of the engineering difficulty of getting the keyboard to open up at all. Though he won’t disclose how long Apple engineers worked on the keyboard design, he does rather wistfully say, “I wish it had taken us only six months to do it. It took us longer. It was a pretty long design phase because of the many issues around the adjustability of this product.” A keyboard that rotates the hands to a truly neutral position (with the hands supinated, thumbs pointing skyward) would have been even more expensive than the $320 Adjustable Keyboard and might have been biting off more than Apple could chew.

“It’s a major, major issue,” Prébin allows, but “we didn’t want to add too much in terms of features and design issues to the product. That’s why basically we went for the split angle and a modular system.”

Ah, yes, the “modular system.” Computer users have become accustomed to keyboards laid out in banks of keys – a main alphanumeric segment, a group of arrow keys, and maybe a numeric keypad and a row of function keys. The Adjustable Keyboard does provide four basic arrow keys on the main board, but everything else is on a separate module, including function keys (in five rows of three, not the familiar row of fifteen), extended arrow keys, and a numeric keypad.

And the Adjustable Keyboard brings back to your fingertips a keyboard design last seen on the ill-fated IBM PCjr: Chiclet keys (or, in Apple vernacular, “buttons”). These small, partly recessed, Tylenol-gelcap-shaped keys take quite a push to actuate and make a decisive click reminiscent of the Pop-a-Matic dice-roller in the 1970s board game Trouble. Buttons are used for all the function keys and some of the arrow keys on the smaller module (but not, stragely, for the numeric keypad) and for a few keys on the main board, like Escape. “These keys are not full-travel keys because we found that people don’t use these keys on a regular basis,” Prébin says. (You’ll find similar “buttons” on the PowerBook Duo computers, and Prébin says “I’m pretty sure you would see these keys on future products, too.”)

So function keys are exiled to the gulag of a separate module, and they’ve deliberately been designed for occasional use only. Does this make any sense for touch-typists?

Let’s say you use Macintosh WordPerfect or even Microsoft Word, both of which allow you to redefine keys as you wish. Maybe you find it convenient to press the F6 function key to toggle boldface on and off. When you’re typing quickly on a conventional keyboard, you probably don’t even think of F6 as F6; you know it by position – as “that function key over there.” The Apple Adjustable Keyboard, however, punishes you for using function keys: You have to take your hand off the main board (and if you wanted to do that, you’d use the mouse, right?), focus on the tiny key you need in a five-by-three grid, press straight down on it until it clicks, and bring your hands back to finish what you’re typing. And if you use a modifier key like Shift with a function key, get ready to tangle your arms to depress different keys on different modules.

Apple’s internal testing inexplicably showed that people rarely use function keys (or even the very useful Delete Forward key, found only on the function-key module), but Prébin admits that Apple sells more keyboards with function keys than without. So there would appear to be more function-key users out there than Apple thinks, including those who cut their teeth on DOS computers. How are they better off with the Adjustable Keyboard?

“You’re correct that if you’re coming from the PC environment, you may want to use the function keys in a very heavy way,” Prébin concedes. “Based on the feedback from our customers, we’re always tring to update our products, and hopefully we’ll be updating the Apple Adjustable Keyboard to recognize the shortcomings of the product.

“We won’t make everybody happy,” Prébin cautions, “but if there are a lot of people who find that the function keys are an essential part of the Macintosh user experience,” then the company will consider changes.

[Originally published 1993 ¶ Updated here 2008.01.13]

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