I’ve been thinking a lot about keyboards lately. Last Sunday I founded the Tactile Keyboards community on Google+ and watched it explode in popularity almost immediately. Spent most of the next couple of days boning up on keyboard lore so I could write a proper FAQ for the group.
On my journey of discovery I learned of geekhack.org, a site for people whose obsession with keyboard customization and modding makes my keen interest in these devices seem like the palest indifference by comparison. Created an account and announced myself in the manner they deem proper for new members. Got a reply saying, more or less, that it’s nice “ESR” attends to details like keyboards.
What? What? What? Your keyboard is not a detail, dammit!
For anybody who does programming or writing on a computer, your keyboard is your most important tangible tool. It’s the one part of your machine that you touch constantly, the most physical interface you have with the computer. Tiny details about it can have a measurable impact on your productivity. A bad one won’t just slow you down, it will hurt you – causing or aggravating RSI (repetitive strain injuries) in the hands and arms.
Given the amount of passion and pickiness hackers pour into their choices of software tools, it’s downright weird that more of us don’t pay better attention to choosing a decent keyboard. Yeah, we all grumble that the Caps-Lock is an anachronistic waste of space but for many of us that’s as far as it goes. We freaking damage ourselves using the shoddy, cheap-shit keyboards attached to most machines nowadays, too often get painful RSI as we age, and never make the connection.
OK, so here’s a pop quiz for you: what is the one, single, only kind of computing equipment that is still sought after for production use thirty years after it was made – sometimes commanding higher prices today even in inflation-adjusted dollars than it did when it was new?
If you guessed “keyboards”, you got it right. Everything else about computing has improved by dizzying orders of magnitude since the 1980s, but modern keyboards suck. Enough people already get this to create a vigorous auction and resale market in vintage keyboards. I’m here to insist that if programmers in general woke up about keyboard ergonomics that market would be much, much larger – and the few companies still making keyboards that aren’t shit wouldn’t be struggling to sell enough volume to support new-product engineering.
How we ended up in this mess is a tragedy. But before I get into that, here’s the main thing that makes a good keyboard: tactile feedback at the engagement point of the keyswitch, so you don’t have to bottom out the key and have the reaction force reflected up into your fingers and hands. Millions of those reflections over the years inflict a lot of unnecessary fatigue and are one of the ways programmers get RSI.
There are other ways that matter, too. The arms-parallel position you have to assume to touch-type on a rectangular keyboard is bad for you. So is holding your wrists so your palms are exactly horizontal. More people get this than understand about tactile keyswitches, which is why the Microsoft Natural has a larger and more visible market presence than vintage keyboards.
But. The keyswitches in the Natural are crap. They’re the commonest kind, the dome switch – actually worse than if it had no tactile feedback at all; it clicks before the engagement point, which trains you to bottom out your keys even on devices that have a bump correctly at the engagement point. I’d snort something about typical Microsoft perversity here if not for the fact that almost all modern keyboards are just this bad.
Some people get so thoroughly conditioned by years of typing on crappy keyswitches that they can’t break the habit of bottoming out when they encounter decent ones. A&D regular Jay Maynard (sometimes known as Tron Guy) is like this; he gets why tactile-feedback switches theoretically ought to improve his experience, but can’t stand them in practice. Tactile feedback doesn’t work for everybody.
But the vintage keyboards that savvy users still chase are the ones that have the tactile feedback – the bump as you engage a key – in the right place. Most revered of these is the Model M, shipped with IBM PCs beginning in 1984. It had a unique kind of keyswitch called a “buckling spring switch” that serious tactile-keyboard fans consider the best ever. The Model M is a true classic; like Algol-60 and the 1911-pattern 45ACP, it was an improvement over most of its successors.
(For completeness and to demonstrate that I’m not being cultishly attached to a single brand, I will now mention the Northgate OmniKey, a superb mechanical-switch keyboard made by an otherwise undistinguished PC manufacturer. Nearly as good as the Model M by all accounts, and having used one I don’t laugh at people who think it was better. After Northgate folded in 2005, the keyboards were for a few years sold under the “Avant” trademark. OmniKeys and Avants would command even higher resale prices than Model Ms now, because fewer were made – but good luck finding any at all, their owners are not letting go of them ever.)
Model Ms, on the other hand, are still manufactured today, by an outfit called Unicomp that bought out the factory from Lexmark after Lexmark had bought it from IBM and uses the original tooling and designs. I’m typing on a Unicomp right now. Despite some drawbacks (which I’ll get to) it’s still odds-on the best keyboard design ever shipped.
But Unicomp is struggling and in constant trouble. Doesn’t take much examination of their website and product line to see the outlines; they’re cash-strapped, unable to do a lot of new-product engineering or marketing because the volume of demand for their product is too low. The few changes they have made to the Model M – like bolting on USB support – have been kluged in on the cheap, which created problems that damage the brand. The UB404LA has interoperability problems with some USB chipsets; ours has dropped connection with the hub on my machine once and flakes out every few minutes when connected to my wife’s machine (which is why she’s using the nipple-mouse-equipped UB40PGA that’s actually mine). The buttons for the integrated trackball have never worked reliably.
Thus we return to the tragedy. Unicomp knows how to make the best computer keyboards ever shipped. Why is it struggling and letting its quality slip?
In brief, because mechanical-switch keyboards are significantly more expensive to produce than all the crappy rubber-dome-switch keyboards we’re surrounded by. Relentless cost pressure by volume buyers pushed PC manufacturers and integrators to ship the cheapest possible components; there came a day when the once-ubiquitous mechanical-switch keyboard was quietly shunted aside and became a specialty item individual users had to seek out.
That would have been sometime in the early 1990s, but I don’t remember exactly when. Because on first exposure dome-switch keyboards didn’t necessarily seem obviously bad – I might have noticed that newer keyboards seemed unpleasantly mushy but then shrugged and adapted. It usually takes change in the other direction – trying a truly tactile keyboard after years of dome-switch nastiness – to notice how good it feels.
Another problem with Model Ms is that they’re well-nigh indestructible. You’re basically only ever going to sell one to a customer, barring house fires or coffee spills. There’s little repeat business. (Other mechanical-switch keyboards don’t have this problem quite as severely; the build quality and ruggedness even on latter-day Unicomps is exceptional.) Everybody else in the PC value chain makes more money by selling you a dirt-cheap keyboard that needs to be replaced every few years.
Thus, Unicomp is stuck. Ironically, there’s now a thriving new market for tactile keyboards that Unicomp could own if it had a decent product-development budget: on-line gamers.
Yes, gamers. Some of them have noticed that they can type faster and with less fatigue on mechanical switches – perhaps shaving a few vital milliseconds off reaction time. Enough of them, in fact, to sustain a handful of boutique companies selling keyboards with mechanical switches marginally inferior to the Model M’s – but with snazzy slick black cases and LED backlights and names like “Devastator”.
And Unicomp? No backlights, nonexistent or profoundly inept marketing, a website that looks like amateur night, and case designs that look like they’re phoning it in from 1985. It’s deeply sad.
I wish I could buy the company, fire everybody but the production crew, and hire on people who actually get product marketing and how to facelift the case designs and field a website that doesn’t make me embarrassed for them every time I look at it. Unicomp’s buckling-spring keyswitches are still the best in the world (even the more clueful gamers sort of know that), and they have the kind of decades-deep goodwill and fan loyalty that most companies would kill for.
Lacking the bimpty-bump million dollars it would take to buy and fix Unicomp, all I can do is urge everybody reading this to wake the fsck up. Keyboards are not a detail! If you’re using a dome-switch keyboard you are probably in the majority who, unlike Tron Guy, would find their quality of life and work significantly improved by a tactile keyboard. You might save yourself from Richard Stallman’s fate as your tendons age; his RSI is so bad he has to hire people to type for him. The price of a Unicomp could be the best $79 you ever spent.
If you already use a Model M, show it to a friend. Hell, give one to a friend! Well, give a Unicomp, anyway – I can well understand holding on to your armor-plated old faithful if you have an original. You’ll be doing a good thing for your friend and for a product which, despite Unicomp’s minor latter-day faults, is far too good to be left to die.
If they get enough of a sales bump, maybe they’ll be able to afford to fix a few things. In the meantime, stay away from the trackball variant (which, now that I look, is marked out of stock anyway). The vanilla Classic and the nipple-mouse variant seem to be OK.
If they really get enough of a sales bump, maybe they’ll get brave enough to make the holy grail of serious keyboard connoisseurs everywhere – a buckling-spring keyboard with a new-school, well-thought-out ergonomic layout like the Truly Ergonomic or ErgoMagic. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?