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article imageOp-Ed: How the keyboard changed newspapers

By Jack Kapica     Sep 16, 2009 in Technology
Switching to a Logitech keyboard after 10 years on an old favourite brought to mind how computer keyboards affected journalists -- and perhaps many other people
What is the most personal part of the personal computer? The keyboard, hands down.
I had originally thought it was the mouse, because I tended to clutch it in a death grip, and that resulted in a nasty case of repetitive strain injury. But that was cured first by using a trackball, which I disliked, and later by Microsoft’s Natural laser mouse.
Replacing mice was easy. Replacing the keyboard, however, proved to be a much more complex, nuanced process.
I had been using a Microsoft Office Keyboard, which was released about a decade ago. So much time has passed since then that I doubt there’s a soul left at Microsoft who will even remember they had ever made such a thing. But I loved it, even after Microsoft’s software upgrades stopped supporting the roller bar, a vertical-scrolling feature that I liked.
I tried many keyboards since then, and liked quite a number of them, but not loved them. And I kept returning to the old MS Office model.
So why did I do that?
I concluded that while keyboard preferences are quirky, and differ from one typist to another, the introduction of the keyboard into newspapers has had profound changes beyond simply making it possible to use computers. It’s had an enormous impact on newspapers and perhaps on many other industries as well.
No, wait! Don’t go away. I’m just getting a little ahead of myself here.
I have settled on a replacement to the MS Office keyboard, which was showing signs of alarming decrepitude: the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard, which retails for almost $100 in Canada. It’s not a perfect replacement, but that’s good too, because it has some really nice features the old keyboard never did.
My reasons for being fussy must, I thought, be specific to me, and so I have no idea whether my opinions will mean much to anyone else. It must drive keyboard marketing people around the twist trying to satisfy such a particular market.
But trying to think backward to discover where the design of keyboards separated personal preference from consensus convinced me I was chasing a ghost. What was much more interesting was the role played by keyboards in journalism.
Please bear with me.
First, like a number of journalists of my generation, I am not what used to be called a touch typist. I learned to type on a portable machine made in pre-war Germany, and moved to Royal and Underwood mechanicals when I started working at the Montreal Gazette in 1971. By the time I left four years later, the Gazette had been slowly introducing IBM Selectrics, electric typewriters with those replaceable spinning type balls in them.
When I went to The Globe and Mail in 1975, I found myself back in a manual newsroom again. It would be another four years before the Globe leapfrogged electric typewriters and shifted to computers with their own keyboards.
But all my typing habits had been set long before that. To become a touch typist I’d have had to reconstruct my entire education. I didn’t have that kind of time; besides, I was pretty fast using four fingers.
My typing style had become … quaint.
The most obvious difference between manual typewriters and the new keyboards is the sound volume involved. Typewriters worked with a key hammering paper rolled onto the typewriter platen; each keystroke made a sound like a small-bore pistol shot. An average newspaper story of 600 words or so would require in excess of 3,000 such reports, almost enough to start a small war in an unimportant country.
This made the newsroom a noisy affair, with both typewriters chattering like low-level machine-gun fire and telephones ringing with a real bell, like they have in fire halls, not the softer electronic warbling of today.
Over the years, the personality of the newsroom has been changed as much by the sudden drop of noise from the telephone and typewriters as by other forms of modernization. Almost overnight, we started hearing reporters talking on the phone five or more desks away, and it dawned on us that our conversations and interviews were no longer private.
At the same time, cost-conscious newspapers started introducing modular desks with the purpose of cramming more bodies into old newsrooms; reporters are now forced to sit cheek by jowl. And reporters responded to this sudden drop of background noise and increased intimacy the only way they knew how: They shut up. Fearing other newsroom denizens might discover what stories they’re working on (journalists can be an extraordinarily paranoid bunch), reporters started developing a low telephone voice and a frosty, even cold personality that protected their privacy the way the typewriter clatter and ringing of the telephones had created a wall of white noise a couple of decades earlier.
Am I getting too far from the Logitech keyboard? Not really. Logitech actually designed its Illuminated model to make a bit of noise as you hit the keys. Not the sharp metallic clattering of a cranky Remington upright in desperate need of oil, but the kind of solid plastic clicking that many keyboard manufacturers have wrongly tried to deaden over the past couple of decades. I prefer some kind of aural feedback when I type. Still, the Logitech keyboard won’t create enough white noise to bring privacy back to a newsroom, but enough to appeal to me on some reptilian level.
The Logitech Illuminated Keyboard
The Logitech Illuminated Keyboard is low-slung, very thin and has appealingly retro features.
When I put the Logitech keyboard next to the old stand-by MS Office keyboard, the difference was startling. The MS Office keyboard was very loud. I hadn’t really thought so when I started using it almost a decade ago, but apparently I have become accustomed to quieter keyboards since then. Besides, I’m working from home these days, and when I tell my wife what story I’m working on, I know there won’t be a phalanx of reporters, pencils poised over notebooks, straining to scoop me. So there’s no need for white noise.
Another interesting feature is what manufacturers call “key travel” or “key throw” — the distance the key moves when you press it. A lot of people don’t like keys that barely move, like those on so many notebook computers, and prefer some sort of tactile response to the act of typing. But advances in technology have made it easier for manufacturers to shorten the travel to almost nothing — the worst case being a virtual keyboard developed a few years ago, in which the image of a keyboard is projected onto your desk top; you tapped your unyielding desk surface and heard nothing when you did so.
I was not surprised when this last invention went nowhere.
The key travel on the old MS Office keyboard was very long, almost as long as that on a Smith-Corona manual, and to an old manual typewriter user, it was satisfying. But that had some advantage too: The MS Office’s keys stood out quite a bit from the surface of the keyboard, and I found it easier on those occasions when I wasn’t staring directly at the keyboard to position my fingers right where I wanted them. Logitech, however, has beveled the corners of each key on the Illuminated Keyboard to the point that it’s too easy to misplace my fingers. This tends to happen most when I try to find the cursor keys, which has turned into a game of blind man’s bluff.
But was it because I learned on manual machines that made me want more defined keys with more key travel? I guess so, but that also means I can’t speak for anyone else.
In any case, Logitech kept the whole keyboard down to a total thickness of 9.3 millimetres, less than a centimetre, a minimalist approach to keyboard design that is apparently desirable. And yet Logitech made this keyboard have more key travel than most notebook keyboards. That’s a remarkable feat. The company cites unnamed research which says that a longer distance required for each keystroke “improves the typing experience.” I’ll take their word for it because that’s been my experience too, but I can’t speak for all those people who seem satisfied with their short-travel keyboards.
The Logitech Illuminated keyboard is also compact in terms of desk space, and is dramatically smaller than my old MS Office model while still being a full-sized affair. My desk space is at a premium, and I appreciate the smaller footprint. In this case I suspect a greater number of people prefer something smaller too.
I should have mentioned earlier that I’m actually wild about the fact that this is an illuminated keyboard, meaning it has back-lit keys, with only the characters illuminated (by LEDs inside the keyboard). Its brightness can be adjusted to your preferences or needs.
Hey, this is important.
I’m a hunt-and-peck typist, after all, and I need to have my eyes glued to the keyboard. Even when there’s a little less light in the room than at mid-day, I appreciate the extra legibility. Would that mean anything to touch typists? I really have no idea, though I imagine they might like that feature when hunting for the special function keys — you know, the ones that open your e-mail program, browser, search and so on. Those keys are never part of any touch-typing course, if only because no two keyboards arrange their function keys the same way.
Typing as I do creates a problem unique to hunter-pecker societies. When you’re lucky enough to have been clobbered by an inspiration, you tend to type very quickly, and often messily. Pressing the “A” key hastily means frequent collateral damage when you also hit the caps-lock key. By the time the muse allows you a fraction of time to glance at the screen, it’s too late: It’s all in caps. So that forces you to resolve a serious matter: Do you hit the caps-lock key again and continue flying in the heat of creativity, go back and retype everything, or perhaps even reformat your text and lose the slender tendril that connects you to the muse?
I found that asking that question alone was enough to annoy the muse to the point she would stomp off into a corner and sulk. Coaxing her back takes a lot of work.
But the Logitech people have included in their Setpoint keyboard software a feature that allows you to disable the caps-lock key, which has gone a great distance to improving my relationship with my muse. She doesn’t seem to have given me any extra inspiration since then, but at least she no longer throws a hissy fit every time I accidentally hit the caps-lock key.
This is important, darn it. Please stop laughing.
For reasons like these, the benefits of the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard outweighed those of the Old Office Faithful, and I finally decided the Logitech keyboard is good enough for me to ditch a decade-long loved affair and declare it to be The One.
But would it be The One for everyone else?
Darned if I know.
Logitech Illuminated Keyboard, $99.99 (Cdn. list). Tested on a computer running an Intel Pentium 4 Dual Core processor on an Intel D975XBX motherboard running Windows 7.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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