Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Split decision

Deux ou trois choses I know about keyboards:

  1. You (all right, I) can never have enough keys. When the Macintosh came out in 1984, Apple pumped up the importance of the mouse by deflating the importance of the keyboard, which it said was "just for typing." Well, obviously, honey. But for speedy typists, lots of keys add zip to computing, even in mouse-driven environments
  2. Compared to the standard QWERTY configuration, the decades-old Dvorak Simplified Keyboard layout, which puts the commonest letters on the home row, is supposedly "better" for us. But then again so is spinach, and I don’t see Popeye using a Dvorak layout on his computer
  3. Many disabled people do without keyboards altogether by using an alternative input device (e.g., Stephen Hawking). On the other hand, keyboards can turn you into a disabled person: Overuse injuries, including painful inflammations of the delicate tendons in the hands, accounted for more than half the occupational injuries catalogued by the U.S. Department of Labor last year.

Issues of ergonomics and safety have become as common in the computer press as mentions of airbags in car reviews, but most of the discussion has dealt with office furniture (adjust your chair so that your wrists are straight) or fuzzy workplace issues (take regular breaks from typing; relax, already). The humble keyboard, however, continues to rule the computing roost effectively unchanged from its typewriter prehistory. Some entrepreneurs have come up with gee-whiz replacements – vertical typing surfaces, maybe, or ten-button jobbies that make you wiggle your fingers – but they haven’t caught on.

Now, though, future keyboards may make like a banana and split if the Apple Adjustable Keyboard becomes a pacesetter. Divided down the middle and hinged at top centre, the keyboard rotates out from the lower corners up to 30°, effectively eliminating ulnar deviation (the angle between the outside edges of hand and forearm). Function keys, numeric keypad, and extended arrow keys are offboard on another module, which lets southpaws place it to the left of the main board. The standard bipartite wristrests make the keyboard look right out of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, but volume, mute, and record keys let you muzzle your computer at the press of a button, which wouldn’t be quite so easy with Clark Nova.

Apple’s marketing materials, which say only that the keyboard "helps your wrists stay in a neutral position for comfort and typing ease," avoid claims of injury prevention because, Apple says, there is no established scientific basis for such claims. All the same, though, the adjusto-board looks like it will turn out to be easier on the hands: The excess ulnar deviation the keyboard prevents is a known cause of tenosynovitis, a potentially debilitating inflammation of the sheaths surrounding wrist tendons.

Apple introduced the adjusto-board last week in part to differentiate the Mac from other computer makes, and while the company is committed to producing versions of the keyboard in the 37 languages the Mac comes in, it won’t be standard equipment: It costs $219. In the oncoming/ongoing technocracy, will execs who can barely hunt and peck but can afford split keyboards get them while their type-all-day secretaries struggle with possibly injurious straight-across models? Conventional keyboards come standard on some low-priced Macs ($105 as an option); Apple sells a $185 "extended" keyboard (i.e., with function keys) that doesn’t split; the ubiquitous Powerbook laptops give the user no built-in option. In short, if you want a genu-wine Apple keyboard that’s probably better for your hands, you have to ante up for it.

Question for Apple CEO John Sculley, which maybe he could answer between phone calls from chum Bill Clinton: Is it ethical to give people the option of potentially wrecking their hands on a cheapo straight keyboard? For the sake of Mac users’ hands – the organs that so strongly mark us as human – Apple would do better to toss in the adjusto-board with every Mac and let existing owners upgrade for peanuts.

[Originally published 1993 ¶ Updated here 2008.01.13]

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