Thursday, 19 July 2012

Keyboard matters

After a long leisurely breakfast in garden shade, I took Clare, Eddie and Ann into town for a look around. As it was a clothes market day, there was a lot of traffic and parking next to impossible, so having dropped them off at the Archiprestal bus stop, to show them where it was, I returned home, parked the car and returned to town by bike, to spend some time meeting people at the church 'drop-in' morning, and the others made their way there to join me later so that we could go together to the Garrofer restaurant in Zona Triador, and enjoy a lunch of their famous paella.

I was delighted to find among a batch of newly donated items a proper Spanish layout computer keyboard, with the extra keys and accents instantly accessible instead of having to dig deep in word processing menus to find the correct ones. So far I've kept a note open on my desktop from which I can conveniently copy and paste Vinaròs and Peñíscola. Now I can install the spare keyboard, and make the effort to type things correctly - a great learning aid, just as I found the acquisition of a Suisse Romande keyboard essential when I was extending my written French fifteen years ago.

There have been attempts at universal keyboards, and complete radical reforms of keyboard layouts, over the century since the typewriters were invented. The debate is once more current as many more people are entering text from a touchscreen on a phone or table (more than from a computer touchscreen). Now more than ever, software design enables all kinds of experimental layouts to find out which best fits the bill. But where will this take us? To an unique universal design, or elsewhere? For what it's worth, my bet is on continued diversification of layout, rather than a unifying standard. 

Go back thirty years and the first computer keyboards used US typewriter layout, and English was the dominant language. Once the WYSIWYG display became a reality, it became possible for computers to function in scores of languages, so a market developed in physical keyboard adaptations to make diverse linguistic input an everyday occurrence. That's why there's now a localised language based market for keyboard manufacture. The only thing that could change this (and it's possible with an on-screen virtual keyboard) would be a low cost physical keyboard that was satisfying to use, but which had key tops able to display the right letters and accents, depending upon what language keyboard driver is loaded by the computer. It's already possible, but rather pricey, alongside a mass manufactured localised keyboard that  may only cost €25 brand new. It will change for sure, as users' habits change. 

Users who have acquired some measure of keyboard skill for data input are reluctant to change - which is why the QWERTYUIOP classic keyboard has survived as long as it has. When people stop acquiring this skill because spoken data input is more accurately received, there will be a sea-change, but not any time soon in my estimation.

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