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Why not a new keyboard layout?

Published on Dec. 4, 2017 2017-12-04 in Blog » UX / UI

Disclaimer: this blog post is a translation. Original post in french here.

Our PC keyboards are an heritage from the old IBM PC layout, evolved from the beginning of the 80's. At this time, the PC was a specific computer built for office productivity with the DOS operating system. Today, our keyboards have obsolete keys like Inser or Scroll Lock. We should imagine a new standard keyboard layout for our time and our usages.

In the 80's, a lot of different and incompatible computers were on the market: Apple II, Amiga, Commodore 64, Macintosh, IBM PC... Theses computers had a traditional keyboard layout (QWERTY) inherited from typewriters and contextual function keys specific to each computer.

A fascinating example is the Xerox Star. This workstation had one of the first graphical environments with windows and icons. The keyboard has been conceived with GUI in mind and has keys for frequent functions like copy/paste.

Xerox Star keyboard with keys: Copy, Move, Delete, Again, Find, Same, Open and Properties.
Xerox Star keyboard in 1981

On the PC, we have 4 categories of function keys:

  • Contextual to the application: F1-F12, Escape
  • For writing text: Inser, Begin, End
  • System keys: Pause, System Rescue, Print Screen
  • UI keys: Scroll Lock, Page Up, Page Down

The keys for the user interface are only for navigating between text pages. Today, nearly everybody is using a computer with a windowed GUI, we could arrange some keys.

Keys that we should remove:

  • Useless: Pause, System Rescue, Scroll Lock
  • Problematic and causing mess: Inser
  • The one that rarely "escape" us from anything: Escape
  • Non-intuitive: F1-F12

Keys that we should add on all PC (desktop or laptop):

  • For the UI: cut, copy, paste, full screen, close, help, refresh, search
  • For OS management: sound, plane mode, screen brightness, lock

Keys that we should un-brand:

  • The Windows key, that we should rename "Meta key" with a diamond (like on the old Sun stations)

Modern computers have their keyboards evolving slowly but without coherence. A new keyboard standard could make a big step in ease of use for a lot of people. I don't write about QWERTY or DVORAK layouts. Yes, QWERTY is obsolete but people with dactylo skills don't want to relearn and people without these skills don't care. When programming, I spend most of my time reading, thinking or manipulating text, I don't write kilometers of lines, so the speed advantage of DVORAK is not important for me.

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