Keyboards tap into changes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am

Take a glance at the latest computer keyboards and you will see something similar to the flight controls of a 747 than what IBM came up with to fly its personal computers two decades ago.

The overall design of a computer keyboard has changed little since the 101-key keyboard which came bundled with IBM's PC/AT released in 1986. Adapted from the basic qwerty keyboard designed in the 1870s for manual typewriters, this IBM incarnation was divided into four parts.

The main keyboard encompassed the bulk of the keys, then a keypad to the right, separated by an array of navigation keys which included arrow keys, while along the top ran the function keys.

Perhaps considered humdrum today, that early design included some keys that were almost left off.

The Escape key, for example, would not have existed if not for the campaign of Bob Bemer, who argued that an escape character was needed to mark an escape sequence in computer code, and as such a special key was needed.

In simple terms, an escape sequence marks the end or transition in a piece of code. Mr Bemer co-founded the ASCII character set and is also credited for giving us the backslash character.

The thing to remember about these early keyboards is they were designed for programmers, not the home user.

The personal computer had yet to be born, and word processing was unheard of, let alone Web browsing.

Fast forward to the 21st century and any new keyboard is as likely to sport a www or e-mail key as it is a scroll lock or break key.

Cynics may consider this new plethora of keys a little over the top, but manufacturers say they are becoming increasingly necessary.

Susan Chen, a sales manager at keyboard manufacturer Ortek, which makes keyboards that include my computer and log off keys, said: 'It's a big trend. Everybody wants more convenience and so more functions in the keyboard.'

Despite the PC being more than 20 years old, and Web surfing around a decade, all these extra keys started breeding only in the past few years.

Starting from just a few Web browsing hot keys, keyboards now sport up to 50 additional keys, many including volume control knobs and scroll wheels. The reason is as much about marketing as it is functionality, with retail prices for keyboards having fallen to under US$10, giving little room for price competition.

Brian Huang, sales manager for Boss Wave Enterprises, which makes mouses and keyboards, said: 'They collect all the normal functions together and then give the user even more.

'Users want more functions in their input device. If you have two in front of you, then you will choose the one with more features.'

He said the more features a keyboard had were strong selling points.

From an aesthetic point of view, keyboard makers are warned to be knowledgeable in their design choices.

Wei Kong, director of industrial design at design consulting firm Titoma, said if functionality was added as a marketing ploy, then extra keys might prove to be cumbersome.

From a production standpoint, the extra keys add little more to the cost, with a high-end keyboard costing just 20 per cent more to manufacture than a simple keyboard, but the retail price can double.

Mr Huang said: 'Within two years, the price will be about the same and all of these functions will be standard.'

But Mr Wei said while the home user might be willing to spend more on a deluxe keyboard for the family, bulk buyers were more price-sensitive and might baulk at the feature-price trade-off.

By the same token manufacturers needed to understand 'if you go cheaper, they will feel cheaper', he said.

All these extra keys leave little left for designers to add, but manufacturers have a few more tricks up their sleeves to make future models stand out.

Expect to see a few USB and Firewire ports in upcoming designs, as well as memory card readers.