Why haven't keyboards evolved in decades?

What’s the deal? I’m not talking about those folks who are trying to rearrange the letters on a keyboard and call that a great improvement, I’m talking about changing the way keyboard input works. Why is it still stupid complicated to type special characters on a US keyboard? I’ve been thinking about this for weeks and it doesn’t seem like anybody else has even thought about this inexplicably lagging field in computer user interface design.

Anyway I wrote a question on Stack Overflow in the hopes of answers, so if you want to see more of what I thought or to upvote this issue go for it:


About special characters, I guess the way to do it would be to have another modifier key that would mean the special character is typed rather than the normal letter (either adding it somewhere or replacing one of those keys that people almost never use).

Also, I believe a Russian company (Art Lebedev) tried to start a revolutionary keyboard concept by replacing the static letters, numbers, and symbols on the keyboard with an OLED display that can even be used to display what hotkey does what in an application, but the high price ensured that it never took off.

It’s kind of good that the special characters you guess wouldn’t do as it would be typed. That could really generate one of those keys people really nener used.

Like the “v” key? ( sorry I couldnt resist ! )

Modifier keys would be an option, but with the plethora of diacritic possibilities (accent acute, accent grave, dieresis, tilde, cedilla, breve) and characters that are nonstandard but not diacritics (ß, æ, €, œ, ¡), it’s impractical to have a modifier key for each, or to make them easy to recall for a user who doesn’t type them often and needs to figure it out (keyboard input rarely uses visual feedback, and its feedback is usually handled poorly).

For diacritics, the French AZERTY keyboard and the US-International keyboards use “dead keys”, which do nothing until followed by a second character (eg. The backtick ` followed by e creates e accent grave è). I don’t like this for an American layout because it breaks the American convention.

I’ve been doing some research into the history of keyboard design. The Caps Lock key is one that doesn’t make very much sense, why does if exist on modern computers? Its real estate used to be used for Ctrl, which is a more ergonomic position in many people’s opinion, which suits a key of its frequent function. However, on French keyboards, it makes sense because the top row (where numbers are) is primarily used for typing diacritical characters, and instead of Caps Lock they use Shift Lock, so you can shift lock to type numbers.

Let’s say Caps Lock would be replaced suddenly it would break most programs ever written. Besides keyboards have evolved slowly, you are just too young to know it.

They have evolved, but there haven’t been any (or many) ecosystem-wide changes in, what, almost 20 years? My first computer I used in my home (so not the Apple II I played with at my dad’s office) was an IBM Aptiva (a sexy black machine), and the only difference between its keyboard and the keyboard on my laptop is the addition of the Fn key for system functions (and a few little layout changes to fit the smaller space). I acknowledge that that is an evolution, and most keyboards today come with dedicated function keys separate from the F keys, but that is neither standardized across systems nor an evolution of typed input. Again, I’m not just talking about minor layout changes (eg. Split-design keyboards) or new materials (scissor keys like on laptops).

I’m curious, what programs use CapsLock? I can’t think of a time I’ve used it as a shortcut, since it behaves as a system-wide toggle. Even if it were useful, why is it in the prime keyboard real-estate despite being relatively untouched, except by a few eccentric typists (yours truly) who use it for typing majuscules in place of Shift?

It’s for little kids on the internet who want to throw a tantrum about everything under the sun (joking, not pointing at anyone here) :stuck_out_tongue:

Bah. Back when I was young and threw a tantrum, my only option was to hold down the Shift key, and I liked it. Youngsters these days and their Caps Lock convenience. Bah.

Strange discussion. As far as I know there are several different keyboard layouts that do not match the “default typewriter” one.

That you are sitting in front of a QWERT* keyboard is more the result that you did not care at the time you bought it.

There are even so called “ergonomic keyboards”. If they are? I do not know.

The drawback of virtual keyboards is that they do not “feel” like a keyboard. You need to hammer on a hard surface without feeling it does anything. On a physical keyboard you would feel the touch, the move and the resistance of the keys. The difference is the haptic perception.
[Yes, I know there are physical keyboards with real bad haptic like the old foliage keyboards (I do not know if they have a name), or with to much haptic like the keyboards with this annoying click sound]

Typically each keyboard has a limited number of keys. So it can easily happen that not all keys you need fit at the same time. That is the reason for the layout changer or function keys (caps, alt, alt gr, fn) that toggle from one layout to another while holding this key. I do not see a problem in that. You just need to know what the other layout is when you activate that mode.

There are some other techniques that look for a sequence. E.g. I have a <´> key. When I press it nothing happens, but the next character key will result in an accent. This even works with layout changer on both keys

-&gt; á

&lt;shift + ´&gt;,&lt;a&gt; 
-&gt; à

&lt;`>,<shift + a>
-> Á

<shift `&gt;,&lt;shift + a&gt;
-&gt; À

The things I frequently see at laptops is that each laptop manufacturer tries to invent his own keyboards layouts especially where the layout changer e.g. <fn> is. I even had a laptop that exchanged <ctrl> with <fn>, which was a bit disturbing. I saw laptops where the <cr> key was hard to hit. But in most cases the keyboards typical keys are at the known location (if these keys exist at all).

I think currently the virtual keyboards are on the run, because of the touch displays. A lot of people recognize they are not the best for daily business (when you need to fluently type a lot). I guess they will survive, but there will be not much change to them.
Maybe something really revolutionary will be invented getting its own part in the world of input devices. Maybe we already have it, but it is not established as such (I think of voice recognition, handwriting, gesture, lip reading, body language…).

My post, if you follow the link, is more thorough and does acknowledge pretty much everything you just mentioned. French keyboards and the US-International layout use the dead keys you described, which is a decent system but require some re-learning for typing basic punctuation like ’ and ", although the trade-off is more advanced special characters. I don’t like dead keys, mainly just because they offer poor feedback for the user.

The problem I have is that all of the ideas in keyboards seem to have been cemented, at least in the US, around 1995. Meanwhile, in the past decade, touch screen keyboards have come up with many very clever and efficient input modes, that are also pretty intuitive and give very low-level users lots of flexibility while reducing error (check out the Minuum and Swype keyboards for Android).

And while keyboard layouts are interesting, the principles they are based on are frankly dubious and untested, and Dvorak absolutely does not help the low-level user in any way shape or form ever ever ever.

For the sake of showing a typing GUI that’s interesting, look at Japanese input, which is designed to convert kana to kanji, or even romaji to kana to kanji if necessary. It’s not perfect, but it gives users easy access to an enormous character set while only having typing access to homonyms.

An example of an advance in keyboard input that could be carried over from touch-screen keyboards to physical keyboards is the press-and-hold function. There is, as far as I can fathom, no reason why pressing-and-holding a key to repeat the input is ever useful. The one exception I’ll grant is the backspace, which for low-level users is a very intuitive way to delete a long phrase (though mouse select and shift+navigation keys works better). On touch screen keyboards, if you hold down a key, you’ll be presented with a menu of similar characters or diacritics for the character. It would be trivial to implement a GUI for this; you could even intuitively allow users to select from the menu of special characters using their keyboard (eg. To select diacritics for E, you would select using the jkl; and uiop keys). Although the space on the keyboard is limited, and it’s impractical for users to memorize whole character maps, by using GUI feedback it would be possible to open up a huge range of special characters by turning every letter into a modifier key in context.

Later on I might try and prototype some experiments like this, but I’m wondering if anyone is aware of projects like that, for example. If nobody else has tried, I’m not going to just leave it stagnant, but I want to know what exists. Doing my own research, I’m learning a lot about the history of keyboards and about keyboard layouts and whatnot, but I’m finding absolutely no interest in refining the interface.

Laser projector + haptic feedback sheet

I’m pretty sure that the keyboard layout is much older than 1995. It comes directly from the typewriters which uses more or less died at that time.

According to your member name I’m sure you do not use a US keyboard. You use a German keyboard which is adopted from German typewriter.

What do you mean with dead keys? For me a dead key is a key without a mapped operation (e.g. Scroll, or Break which is was used in the past, but as far as I know is not used anymore).

What do you mean with “low-level user”?

virtual keyboards have due to it’s nature complete different advantages and drawbacks.

  • Physical keyboards do not occupy screen space
  • virtual keyboards do not occupy physical space
  • Physical keyboards offer haptic feedback
  • Virtual keyboards have limited haptic feedback
  • Physical keyboards have static layout and printing with limited dynamic feed back (e.g caps lock LED, num lock LED)
  • Virtual keyboards can dynamical exchange the layout and the output

All in all virtual keyboards are simply input method with own characteristics. While you complain about “keyboards seem to have been cemented” each mobile phone manufacturer used to implement an own version of virtual keyboards. This forced users to change their behavior when changing the device.
For quite some time I see the process of unifying and customization is ongoing. This is less a result of phone manufacturers. I think it is more a result that they delegated that things to the OS manufacturer. They do not do that to do us a favor (I’m sure they would like to bind customer to their phones). It is more a question of costs. When the OS manufacturer offers and maintains the virtual keyboard it is less costs for the phone manufacturer. But I see I’m leaving the topic.

With virtual keyboards you are flexible enough to use whatever input you like. But you will not get the haptic feedback. If you need it it is your personal choice.

This also answers your question:

They have. But rather to change existing devices that work since ages, there are simply new devices that add flexibility, but bring it’s own issues.

Last but not least a keyboard is “just” an input device.

Will there be the one and only “universal input device” in future?
I do not think so.
The development of new input devices is progressing and moves forward to let the user the choice which one to use or even to use several devices at the same time. There are devices that became obsolete (see the light pen) or might become obsolete. There are devices that get improved (e.g. image recognition) others basically stay the same (e.g. physical keyboard). As you see with the 3D hype (which is not the first and not even the second one) the market will decide what is state-of-the-art and what is obsolete.

Nevertheless this is just my opinion and I do not know about any projects regarding keyboards or input devices. It might be a good idea to ask at some universities. I’m sure there are projects doing research into this direction.

with touchscreen technology and text recognition, people are going back to writing by hand, which is kind of ironic.

To clarify some points Monster:

I do use a US QWERTY keyboard, my user name comes from a Yiddish expression, Yiddish still being spoken in parts of the US

I don’t think you’re right about the layout being much older than 20 years. The location of the letter keys have been where they are for about a century, but looking at old computers and typewriters, I’ve found lots of variation between the special characters and punctuation (on old typewriters, or was common to have the ¢ sign, sometimes certain punctuation could only be typed by typing one character on top of another, for example l and . to make !), there was commonly a Shift Lock key, and through the 80s and early 90s many of the function keys occupied different spaces on the keyboard (Ctrl and CapsLock were commonly switched). I can’t find the year it was adopted, but when ANSI standardised the desktop keyboard, it basically stopped changing in the US.

Anyhoo, I haven’t figured exactly the scope of what I want (is it necessary for a single keyvoard to be able to type in non-Latin alphabets as well? Probably not), but right now in the US diacritics are actually pretty common but we don’t use them because they’re cumbersome to type. Names like Renée and Zoë get typed Renee and Zoe, we’ve lost the ability to express monetary values in ¢, and most people don’t use “curly quotes” unless they’re in a dedicated word processor. It seems like it could be better, but I don’t know how.

And indeed Modron! That is why I’m curious about this issue. It seems that touch screen keyboards have highlighted the clumsiness of mechanical desktop keyboards.

Might be true for typing a short message, but for typing longer text I would say that a mechanical keyboard is far superior. Try to find a person who types over 100 words per minute by hand.

Also, touch screens have the problem that you can’t rest your fingers on the keyboard while typing, which means that you require a lot more precision for typing without looking at the keyboard itself compared to a traditional mechanic keyboard where your fingers can find their ways to the keys using a combination of muscle memory and touch.

There is nothing simpler than a keyboard. Push a button (labelled) and the character appears on screen. No skill required.
That said, I tried a whole bunch of keyboard types on a touchscreen, including some exotic chording keyboards. And in the end, good ol’ qwerty won. Actually, Dvorak won, but I haven’t quite developed the muscle memory for it yet.
I’d be a big fan of NEO, if it could be supported at OS level.

Why is QWERTY used? Because everyone uses it.
Are there better alternatives? Yup.
Why haven’t we changed? Because no-one wants to learn something new, or replace all their hardware.

Interestingly, I take my uni lecture notes on a tablet with an active stylus. You can’t draw diagrams with a keyboard. I don’t use handwriting recognition, I just use write, which is a word-processor for handwriting, and works amazingly well.

keyboards are fine as they are