Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Keyboard lovers would rather fight than switch

Take away a keyboard from someone with a preference for one and you might as well heist that person’s most comfortable shoes. You literally have your paws all over a keyboard all day, and quite apart from the concern about repetitive strain injuries caused by prolonged typing, subjective impressions like clickiness (felt with the fingers and heard with the ears), layout, and even key colour and texture carry surprising weight. It’s like William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch intimations about the true relationship between human and machine: You need your IBM keyboard to go clackey-clack the way you need a shot of caffeine each morning – or the world just doesn’t feel right.

It’s not hard to find keyboard firebrands: A quick poll of Internet users netted some forceful responses. Gordon Dohle, humanities, social sciences and Internet Instructor at Champlain College in St. Lambert, Que., uses a Datadesk Switchboard, an obsolescent model with movable modules for the alphabetic section of the keyboard, the arrow keys, and the numeric keypad – a customizability he finds “very convenient for left-handers. I also used it for a while on a Mac Plus, and it is convertible to a DOS keyboard if I should ever have to stoop so low. Finally, I like the key response. Clickety-click is better than pmf-pmf.”

Apple Canada Inc., which owns nearly the entire Macintosh keyboard market (third party or “aftermarket” keyboards for the Mac are rare), last year phased out all its respected keyboards in favour of the Apple Design Keyboard, an inexpensive model mass-produced in Thailand. Apple’s groundbreaking but flawed Adjustable Keyboard, an “ergonomic” model that split down the middle, was discontinued too, but its Chiclet-style buttons, requiring a forceful click from directly above, live on in the front panels of some Mac models and on its PowerBook laptops.

“I used to use a Datadesk ‘clicky’ keyboard on my Mac Plus, and loved it,” says Ken Landa of McGill University in Montreal. “Every time I was forced to use another keyboard, I felt uncomfortable typing on it. But since I have been using this Apple Design [Keyboard], I have grown to really like the mushy feel of the keys – so much so that I feel uncomfortable when I go back to use one of my ‘old favourites.’”

Adherents of the Windows religion have their opinions too. Deryck Harnett, executive assistant at the School of Music at Memorial University in St. John’s, says “I have used keyboards with function keys on the [left] side from Northgate since IBM decided that God really meant for function keys to be on the top. I love the feel, sound, and flexibility. Northgate has gone through rough times lately, but I would like to think that they will soon come out with a keyboard which is designed for computer operators rather than typewriter-trained secretaries.”

David Milligan of Toronto uses a “very functional and no-name ordinaire“ keyboard at home and a new Microsoft Natural Keyboard at his CBC desk. “What I like about the Natural is what I liked about my first computer keyboard... and that is the soft cushy sponginess of the keys. It was faintly erotic. The drawback with all these soft keyboards is that you don’t always know if you’ve actually connected. At some point in the pressing-down of the key you hope that the switch underneath has been activated. The keyboard I use at work is slightly clicky. However, it sounds kind of tacky [and] doesn’t have that luxurious soft elasticity of my home unit. [But] it is very handy for using just one hand.”

[Originally published 1995 ¶ Updated here 2008.01.13]

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