Keyboard (In)Consistancies

Six  keys have always been a problem for me.  Two are “useless” keys, Scroll Lock and Caps Lock.  Scroll Lock is a through back to the IBM days and was used to cause the up and down arrows to scroll through pages instead of moving up and down one line.  It’s an infrequently used key and one that most people never touch.  The other “useless” key is Caps Lock.  It’s not so much as useless as improperly placed.  Normally below the tab and above the shift, it can often be accidentally hit, resulting ins a STRING OF UPPER CASE TEXT until the typist realizes their mistake.  My solution for these, using the Thinkpad T41 keyboard (about as perfect a layout for keyboards as I’ve come across) is to remap the Caps Lock to Num Lock and the Caps Lock to the Windows/Apple key.

The other set of keys are Alt/Option, Shift, Control,  and the System Key.  The Shift key has a pretty simple function, providing the ability to change case on letters or adding different symbols to keyboards without adding additional keys.  Shift probably doesn’t need to be changed all that much.

The remaining three keys, Alt, Ctrl and System (Apple/Windows) are used in widely inconsistent manners.  For instance, on Windows, Ctrl is is used to copy/cut and paste, both within an application and between applications.  This is clearly a system function, so why use Ctrl.  Aren’t you controlling the app and not the system at that point?  Apple takes a different approach and uses the Apple key to copy/cut and paste, but also uses it to control programs (Apple-S to save), the former being a system function, the latter being program specific.  Windows, on the other hand, uses the Windows key sparingly to control the Windows environment, such as showing the desktop or bringing up find.  In both OS’s, multiple key combinations can be used to activate different functions, such as Apple-Shift-C to show colors in TextEdit.  It’s a very confusing system, especially on OS X where Spaces is controlled using the Ctrl key because the Apple key is over loaded.

So here’s my suggestion.

  1. Eliminate the Scroll Lock key.  Apple has already done this with no detrimental effect to usability.
  2. Move the Caps Lock key to a less prominent position.  It is still used (flaming comes to mind), perhaps replacing the Scroll Lock key on the standard IBM layout.  In it’s place put a Ctrl or System Key.
  3. Remap the functionality of the System (Apple/Windows) Key to control system functionality.  This would include “Show Desktop”, switch Desktop in Spaces, Copy/Cut/Paste.  Basically anything that would be system wide versus program wide.  Additionally allow people to map functions to unused keys, so they can, for instance, bring up a frequently used program with a single key stroke (my favorite would be Apple-T for Terminal)
  4. Make the Ctrl key the predominate key for controlling a program.  Ctrl-S to save, Ctrl-Q to quit, etc.
  5. Let Alt be used in conjunction with both the System and Ctrl key, but not by itself.
  6. Leave the Shift key alone, maybe letting it be used with other modifier keys to give the power user the needed extra key combo to pull up some obscure command they insist they need.

Do I think this will be done any time soon?  No.  People have their hot keys memorized.  Suddenly changing Ctrl-C to Windows-C would cause a lot of confusion.  Apple is especially egregious in this area, overloading the Apple key with multiple combo variations.  And have you tried to use Photoshop?  It’s the keyboard equivalent to learning Sumerian.

But if someone doesn’t point this out, if someone doesn’t provide a set of guidelines, then nothing will change.

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