Let’s not get all excited about the new Apple Adjustable Keyboard. Don’t get me wrong: I think the keyboard’s signature feature – the fact that it opens up to 30 degrees to keep your hands from bending sideways at the wrist – is a knee-smackingly right-on idea. It’s significant that a $7-billion company has produced such a keyboard; doing so gives the idea legitimacy. I predict articulated keyboards will be commonplace in under five years – yes, you closet DOS/NeXT/Vax/Amiga/Atari users, even on your machines! This may translate into a reduction in overuse injuries, particularly tenosynovitis (an inflammation of the sheaths surrounding tendons).
But there’s a big problem, and it’s the function-key module offboard of the main body of the keyboard. It contains all 15 function keys, a numeric keypad, and all the arrow and extended-arrow keys on the Extended Keyboard II (Up/Down/Left/Right, Help, Del, Home, End, Page Up/Down). Sure, you can put the module more or less wherever you want, but if you want to use the delete key (not backspace, the delete forward key) you have to reach all the way over and press it. Or click it, I should say: Like all the keys except the numbers and the basic arrows, that key is actually a little semi-recessed Chiclet key that clicks when you push it. It looks like a Tylenol gelcap and feels like the Pop-a-Matic dice-roller in the 1970s board game Trouble.
And if you’re like me, a heavy user of function keys (or the escape key, as many users of terminal emulation programs are), you’ll find every possible obstacle in your way to efficient computing. Most function-key users don’t even think of them by number; it’s just "press that key over there." I have to look on my template now and then to sort out shift vs. option vs. command, but beyond that I just hit the damn things. Not on the new keyboard: Instead of groups of keys in a single row, you get five rows of three. So forget about a template with enough room to document all the various modes, and forget about using your built-in sense of proprioception (spatial awareness of body parts) to hit the right key almost without looking. If you want to press command-option-F8, you have to hold down two keys on one board and hunt for another on a second board, press it (click!), and return your hands to home position. And if you’re a right-hander, you probably have the module on the left but press command and option with your left hand, meaning your right hand crosses over the left to push the function key.
This is progress?
I interviewed the product manager for the keyboard at Apple, Paul Prebin, and he claimed their tests showed almost no one used function keys or even the delete forward key. Huh? He admitted, though, that many journalists who’d interviewed him voiced complaints similar to mine. He’s very open to suggestions on future keyboard designs; he doesn’t even rule out a fully-articulated keyboard that pops up from the desk, supinating the hands into an even more nearly-neutral position. As for the Chiclet keys (which Apple coyly calls "buttons"), they already are found on the Duos and likely will reappear on new machines, too. Oh, great.
Look for my other stories on the keyboard in the "Village Voice" (19-Jan-93), "Toronto Computes" (April-ish), and "Toronto Globe and Mail" (who knows when).
Paul Prebin — [email protected]; 408/862-3185 (fax)