Stop fiddling with the Keyboard Layout!

I swear… sometimes, I wonder what the MS Hardware Group which works on keyboards is thinking.

As I see it, they have a really simple job – find and keep the keyboard layout that works for the users, and lead/innovate/maintain with the technologies behind the keyboard.

Leading Technologies

They have been great at innovating and maintaing the technologies, repeatedly adding things like:

  • USB (and USB hub)
  • Wireless (with awesome battery life) and Bluetooth
  • Media shortcut buttons, including Sleep
  • see-thru encasing
  • etc…with each generation and improving the hardware abilities.

Lagging Keyboard Layouts

However, they have been horrible at finding and KEEPING the keyboard layout that works:

  • Split/curved hand layout
  • Arrow keys in an inverted T layout
  • Escape key WITH the Fn keys and ABOVE the number keys
  • Home/End/PgUp/PgDn/Ins/Del in the classic 2 row and NOT the 3 row layout
  • Removing the Ins key altogether
  • Fn keys ON by default instead of needing Fn-lock)

Note: I am just talking about the keyboard layout here. Tactile touch and non-input keyboard gizmos like scrollwheels, touchpads, etc are something else altogether. I mean, I do like the clickity-clack of the IBM keyboards (my X41 has sold me on it), though I am not zealously fascinated by it.

The Trusty MS Natural Keyboard

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love Microsoft Hardware, especially the keyboards, since the days of the original MS Natural Keyboard. THAT was an awesome keyboard (matches just about all my keyboard layout criteria listed above). Its only “problems” were that it was pretty bulky, pretty wide, and technologically primitive (wired, no USB, no Media shortcut buttons nor the Sleep button).

So, what does that team turn around and do? Introduce the Natural Keyboard Elite, which trimmed off a lot of weight, narrowed the keyboard tremendously, and in the process traded the inverted T into a lowercase “t” layout for arrow keys and introduced the bizarre 3 row layout of Home/End/PgUp/PgDn/Ins/Del.

Note to the obvious – the reason the 2 row layout works out so well is because:

  1. Home is right above End
  2. PgUp is right above PgDn
  3. Ins is right above Del

In other words, the opposing functioning key is right next to each other in the same ordering relationship (always above/below each other). Anyone can remember that. Now look at any of the MS keyboards with the 3 row layout. They usually fail to keep opposing functioning keys in adjoining columns, move keys around between versions, and some even drop the Insert key. I see no rhyme or reason for the design changes at all.

All I can say is that as a touch typist, a simple, logical keyboard layout that preserves muscle memory is most important to me. You can add all the frills and hardware upgrades you want, but if you mess around with the keyboard layout, especially into ones that are not immediately logical, then you simply annoy me and make me consider the design foolish.

Good Designs do come Back

Fortunately, it seems that the MS Keyboard Group comes back to its senses every 5 years or so and release an update to the original design.

Remember the MS Natural Keyboard Pro? I thought it was the perfect update to the original MS Natural Keyboard because it brought back to the original design and simply updated it with dual PS/2 and USB, an integrated USB hub, and added Media shortcut buttons, including Sleep. If it was also wireless with great battery life, I would IMMEDIATELY buy several of that keyboard and never use any other again. Incidentally, this is the keyboard that most people on the IIS team use.

But alas… promptly, with the next revisions to introduce wireless capability, the layout removed the USB hub, re-introduced to the 3 row layout, started removing the Insert key and making the Delete key prominent, and introduced the ridiculous Fn-lock key with the Fn-keys off by default… and the resulting generation of wireless keyboards all suffer from variations on this design. What is silly is that some keys keep getting moved or neglected (i.e. Home/End/PgUp/PgDn/Ins/Del) and the Fn-lock concept keeps coming back.

Come on! Why doesn’t Alt-F4 work!?! Gah! <presses Fn-lock key>

And five years later, after all those experiments with keyboard layout, the MS Natural Ergo Keyboard 4000 essentially returns back to the MS Natural Keyboard Pro design, except with sleeker Media shortcut and Sleep buttons, lost the USB hub, still retaining the ridiculous Fn-lock key, and still not wireless.

Le Sigh…

From my perspective, it is five years of no progress, even though I am sure many man-years were spent on those designs. Sigh… all that wasted time. I am just waiting for those guys to realize that the Fn-lock concept is silly and should be removed, and that they should just work on getting the “classic” keyboard (i.e. MS Natural Keyboard) design wireless and call it a day. Stop experimenting and shifting the keyboard layout around!

It seems like new people join that team every couple of years and want to radically change the “user experience” of the keyboard, first to target the “Internet Browser”, then the “Knowledge Workers”, and now “Media Users”… and what better way to radically change the user experience than to move the keyboard layout around?

Ooh… it’s revolutionary keyboard layout optimized for activity X, Y, Z, blahblahblah.

Don’t they get it… that the classic design is basically best – just keep it and add all the convenience buttons you want and upgrade the hardware to be buzzword compliant. Don’t mess with the keyboard layout and annoy the touch typists who periodically purchase keyboard upgrades.

I mean, not to be mean or stereotypical, but the users that buy these “radically new” user experiences probably do not touch type and thus can actually afford reading the keycaps of the changing keyboard layout or enjoy the see-thru encasing. These users will not care where you put the keys as long as it exists to be buzzword compliant and they can easily find it.

What does this have ANYTHING to do with Software?

Oh, hmm… so that got me thinking. Maybe those are the same sorts of thoughts that YOU guys have of US working on software like IIS. I mean, why can’t we stop futzing with how the web server is built/extended and just make incremental improvements in performance, security, and features with each release? Why do we keep breaking ISAPI Filters and force you to write new Modules/Handlers in IIS7?

Ahh… but I think it is different with software. Hardware designs are inherently re-usable – physical laws governing the design stays the same through time. Software design is far more complex, has not reached that same level of maturity yet, and the environment/rules keep changing over time and obsolete the designs. Believe me, we would love to stick to one design and just make those incremental improvements – that makes our jobs easier and your lives better. But, what tends to happen every five years or so is that the system/rules change and the software gets obsolete (darn that technical progress!!! 😉 ).

  • In 1985, it was the Memory Address and move from 8bit to 16bit (Intel 80286)
  • In 1990, it was the GUI and move from MSDOS TSRs to 16bit “Enhanced Mode” Windows Applications (Windows 3.0)
  • In 1995, it was the move from 16bit to 32bit Applications (Windows 95)
  • In 2001, it was the move from the cooperative multitasking of Windows 9x to preemptive multitasking and real process isolation of Windows NT (Windows XP)
  • In 2005, it was the move from simple Web Applications to cooperating Web Services (Visual Studio 2005 / ASP.Net 2.0)
  • Etc…

I’m sure that good design principles remain invariant, but no implemented piece of that design could survive from one generation to the next… so we keep rewriting it, and that’s when you see changes and bugs. Hopefully, with IIS7, we put a good technological design stake in the ground and can stick to not rewriting it over the next decade and just focus on improving functionality to match your needs.

Hehe… you just KNOW that I have to tie things back to software and IIS at some point… it’s not just a hardware rant… 😉


Comments (21)

  1. Damien Guard says:

    You can’t keep the USB hub and have it still wireless.

    The keyboard would need a clever system to encode all USB packets into it’s own wireless format and back – quickly.

    Whilst powering itself and attached devices on a set of double AA batteries.


  2. James Blackwell says:

    If we have ONE MORE keyboard with a big fat DELETE button, I am going to lose it!

    I wish Microsoft would remember that there are still some left-handed people that use CTRL+INSERT to copy text and SHIFT+INSERT to paste text, all while not having to move my left hand off of the mouse.

    An even bigger surprise upon asking lots of people that I work with is the fact they did not even know about these two shortcuts…

    To top it off, Outlook does not support these keyboard shortcuts, either… grrr.


  3. David.Wang says:

    Damien – ah, ok. I have no problems with trading off the USB hub and having wireless. What the MS Wireless Desktops are doing right now is sufficient for me – I just wish the keyboards would go back to the classic layout to include everything EXCEPT for the USB hub…


  4. David.Wang says:

    James – exactly! They make all these changes and most people don’t even recognize it… except those of us that hate the keyboard layout fiddling.

    I am right handed but I type with the Dvorak layout (yes, I can switch type qwerty, but I prefer Dvorak). I grew up using SHIFT-DEL, CTRL-INS, and SHIFT-INS to cut, copy, and paste, and not CTRL-X, CTRL-C, and CTRL-V… which while making sense in qwerty (XCV is all in a row on the left hand), it makes NO sense in Dvorak (X is under "B", C is under "I", and V is under ".").

    But, don’t get me started with the hotkeys and Dvorak… especially the positional ones for most games – games author should realize that position means everything, so they should rewire appropriately based on keyboard layout.


  5. TristanK says:

    Sure David, game developers should support all six Dvorak users instead of building better content. 🙂

    For my money, I love the no-insert-key-right-next-to-the-backspace-key layout, but I see what the lefties might have against it (Insert’s surely still reachable with the right hand, though?)

    It’s the FLOCK key that really gets me annoyed…

  6. David.Wang says:

    TristanK – tbbbbbpppppt.

    All you qwerty users… you simply have not taken the red pill !!!

    It’s not hard for them to make hotkeys layout invariant; it just has to be in their mind to do so. I’m sure they basically say "eh, but the hotkeys are all remappable, so Dvorak users can simply remap it themselves into our physical layout."

    I know on the grand scale of things it’s a minor annoyance and bug to these folks that will probably never ever get fixed.

    The point with the keyboard layout is for touch typists to get to everything without having to look/reach. Playing around with the keyboard layout simply tells me:

    1. Most users are not touch typists

    2. The designers are not touch typists (or if they are, they are closet typists)

    3. The designers don’t give a $&*(#@ about typists and simply care about "new design experiences for the novice user".

    It’s the classic "piss off your vocal tehnical customer base to appeal to the much larger non-technical customer base". We all do it at some point in the Software industry. Doesn’t mean I like it. 😉


  7. Bryan says:

    The way I deal with bizzare, non-standard keyboard layouts is simple.  I don’t buy the keyboards with the bizzare layouts.

  8. David.Wang says:

    Bryan – well, I don’t buy the keyboards with annoying layouts either.

    But, I still hate seeing the product team "waste time" so obviously on such an easier problem space.

    Oh wait, but that’s how some of you view the IIS product team when it comes to the web server feature space, hmm… 😉

    Ah, the ironies…


  9. Stalker says:

    After months of trying to use Alt+F4 and pounding the keyboard in frustration, I finally found out I had to hit the Fn-lock key first. The huge Delete button and the lack of an insert button is very annoying, too. But I didn’t even think to look closely at the key layout before I bought it, I had never had a problem with it before. Oh well.

    And wireless USB keyboards are everywhere. The keyboard wouldn’t be encoding USB packets into wireless signals, it would be encoding wireless signals into USB packets, no?

  10. Anonymous Coward says:

    The various MS Keyboards have a major drawback:  MS managed to screw the location of the ‘6’ key, which is on the left part of the keyboard, close to the ‘5’, instead of being close to the ‘7’.  If you’re looking for a good, cheap (less than $40) split keyboard that touch-typist like to use, check the Belkin ErgoBoard.  The MS keyboards are a cruel joke to any serious touch-typists… And if the location of the ‘6’ key doesn’t bother you, you’re not a touch typist (and you’re unlikely to ever become one, for such an ill-conceived keyboard prevents learning the good habits needed to become a touch-typist).  It’s quite funny seeing someone using a keyboard that has the ‘6’ key at the wrong location ranting about keyboard designers not being touch typists.  Sell that s#!t on eBay and buy a split keyboard designed by touch-typists for touch-typists (like the Belkin ErgoBoard I mentionned… It’s a membrane keyboard, like the MS ones)


  11. Dub Dublin says:

    I’ve got a bigger keyboard rant – Why, oh why, is it impossible to get keyboards (especially good ergonomic ones) without that execrable numeric keypad?  Does anyone other than accountants actually use the things anyway?  Mine’s clearly the dustiest region of the keyboard right now.  It provides absolutely NO necessary functionality for the vast majority of users.

    Ergonomically, the numeric keypad is a nightmare, especially for right-handed users:  Ideally, the mouse would sit close to the typing area of the keyboard, but with that obese numeric keypad adding a full 3-1/2 nches to the width of the keyboard, I’m forced to keep the mouse unnaturally far away (and my elbow splayed out uncomfortably), or worse, to offset the keyboard to the left for clearance, so I wind up typing skewed to one side.

    My ideal keyboard:

    –  ergonomic slanted and split keyboard

    –  Esc and function keys above  (no Fn Lock key at all!)

    –  NO numeric keypad (If absolutely required by marketing, at least use an embedded numeric keypad, like laptops do)

    –  3-row Ins/Del, Home/End, Up/Down and real plus-shaped arrow key array (not inverted "T" crap – that was only because of historical mfg cost issues!), all on the LEFT side of the main keyboard. (Sorry, but I disagree with you – the 3-row layout is way more intuitive, and narrower to boot.)

    With the minor addition of a center enter/select key and another function key or two around the new "Plus" cursor key array, you could make it easily do double duty as basic audio controls (think iPod Shuffle, in concept, if not exact layout.)  I’m generally thinking one Fn key to "shift" the plus-array to basic audio control mode, and another which would alternatively shift the left and right keys to FFW and REW.  5-way navigation controls (Shuffle, Treo, and other smart phones, etc.) are a staple of life these days, so it’s not like people will have a hard time figuring this out…

  12. David.Wang says:

    Anonymous Coward – Personally, I cannot believe a real touch typist can use qwerty, a keyboard layout designed to slow down the early "efficient touch typists" from locking mechanical typewriter heads.

    Location of the "6" makes sense for qwerty because you already need to reach and contort for keys anyway, so you are used to it.


  13. David.Wang says:

    Dub – Actually, I agree with you. I have no problems with a 3-row layout you describe. I have problems with removing/moving keys that destroy opposing keystrokes (i.e. Home/PgUp, End/PgDn, Del/Ins – or removing Ins completely and making Del oppose PgDn, etc) which happened when moving to the 3-row layout.

    Hehe… the numeric keypad does not bother me because I rarely use the mouse. I navigate using purely the keyboard, occassionally Fn keys, and the arrow keys. But I agree; the numeric keypad is outdated and needs to be replaced with better multi-function media/cursor control.

    For integrating mouse cursor movement, I actually like the IBM pointing stick between the G/H/T/Y keys. It gives me mouse cursor movement without ever lifting my hand off the keyboard. If I had a couple of "shift" keys to modify that analog pointing stick behavior, it could serve the purpose of your 5-way navigation control…


  14. WooYek says:

    Does anyone know how to force the keyboard/driver to start up with the FN key ON?

  15. Eric Osmann says:

    Ok – so its become clear that MS has messed up the ctrl-insert (copy) and shift-insert (paste) keyboard mapping and they no longer work on the wireless keyboards that DO still have the insert key… but does ANYONE know how to get these keys remapped so I can get them working again.   I use these key combos many times daily and find it impractical after 20 years to learn or use the Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V alternatives with my left hand no less.

    There really has to be some solution out there and if anyone knows, please post a reply.



  16. David.Wang says:

    Eric – I have found that the newest Office applications do not support the legacy ctrl-insert/shift-insert/shift-delete combination for copy/paste/cut no matter the keybord. Very annoying to me every time I use Outlook.

    Are you certain the keystroke is not transmitted by the wireless keyboard (at which point you’re out of luck) or is the keystroke not interpreted by the application as such (which can be worked around with utilities like the Key Remapper applet from PC Magazine).


  17. tourist.tam says:

    erm … I still prefer a good old looking keyboard. Like the dell I use at the office:


  18. Ron White says:

    Any keyboard layout which begins with the proposition that the QWERTY keyboard that touch typists are accustomed to using should be in the dead center (from left to right).  Put the adding machine to the right of the QWERTY keys and everything else to the left or above.  And the Caps Lock and Control keys should be reversed so that a touch typist can use the Control key without lifting her/his fingers from the home keys.  For people who live and die by word processing, this is the only layout that makes sense, yet I know of no such keyboard in the marketplace.  If anyone knows where I can get such a keyboard, please let me know.

    Ron White

  19. Anna says:

    Does anyone know how to stop my keyboard automatically inserting the bloody real time data when i try and type things like don’

    This is a test 08:39:26 Real time

  20. David.Wang says:

    Anna – keyboards don’t do that.

    You are either infected with a virus or running additional software that is inserting text. You will have to stop running as Administrator and clean up the junk software installed to do such wacky things.


  21. David.Wang says:

    Ron – any simple keyboard remapping software can swap the Caps lock and Left Control keys.

    Personally, I type using the Dvorak layout, but I never use a specialized Dvorak keyboard. I use the normal QWERTY keyboard with all the necessary keys remapped.

    Remapping keys is far more effective at getting the exact key layout one wants. Windows natively supports this behavior.