We need new keyboards

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A different discussion is drifting off-topic into a topic that is nonetheless close to my heart. @Andreas Stötzner remarked “We need new keyboards.”
Fifteen years ago when I was still single, I bought a German-layout keyboard on a lark and forced myself to get used to QWERTZ instead of QWERTY in the distant hope that I’d one day land a job in Germany or Austria. It took me a month or two to get used to the Y/Z position flip, which was faster than I anticipated, but nonetheless I found many of the standard key mappings, particularly # ' to be annoying.
I downloaded, installed and ran Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator, and I edited the German layout to my liking. I added a bunch of AltGr and Shift-AltGr glyphs like ſ ↑ ↓ ← → œ æ ❧ ❦ and whatnot. In hindsight I could have just aped what Apple does with its Option and Shift-Option layers, but there were other characters I wanted that standard Mac layout didn’t offer. In the course of building it I noticed you could map multiple characters to a keystroke, so for German quotes, one keystroke gave me both »«, another ›‹ and another „“ . I did not figure out how to include the back arrow key to the sequence to move the cursor between the two fence characters, unfortunately. But when you think about it, every fence character on the keyboard should be mapped this way. I don’t know if Macs can do anything similar.
One of these days I hope to revisit the layout with more matched pairs of fence characters in mind, () [] <> {}, to speed up typing and free up keys. Once I settle on my ideal layout, I plan to upload it and have WASDkeyboards print a custom set of keycaps for it.

Comments

  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,034
    edited June 3
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    On the subject of new keyboards, Unicode’s CLDR project includes a standardised XML representation for keyboard layouts, which can be used by downstream libraries and tools to compile keyboard drivers for various platforms. This promises to greatly improve the efficiency of getting new keyboard layouts supported in systems. The primary beneficiaries of this, obviously, will be digitally disadvantaged language communities that are not prioritised for development due to their limited business impact, but I am hopeful that it might also be a path for more use and sharing of custom keyboard layouts.
  • Andreas Stötzner
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    On the subject of new keyboards, Unicode’s CLDR project includes a standardised XML representation for keyboard layouts, which can be used by downstream libraries and tools to compile keyboard drivers for various platforms. This promises to greatly improve the efficiency of getting new keyboard layouts supported in systems. The primary beneficiaries of this, obviously, will be digitally disadvantaged language communities that are not prioritised for development due to their limited business impact, but I am hopeful that it might also be a path for more use and sharing of custom keyboard layouts.
    I don’t have actual insight in this development and I guess it does have its merits in some way. But I still wonder: “keyboard layouts”, if I’m not mistaken, is a category on the level of digital programing. Assuming a stakeholder of a “digitally disadvantaged language community” (wonderfully put!) owns a hardware device with an English, German or Spanish physical keyboard. He now ventures to effect (digitally) a “custom keyboard layout”. Will his (physical) key-caps display what he has been programing? Will he actually see on his keyboard what he has designed, what he wants to use, what he intends to click on?
    I’m rather naïve in this matter. I fail to imagine that our old-school mechanical keyboard with unalterable character display will ever fit the bill.
    We need completely new keyboards.

    I hate to repeat myself.


  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,034
    edited June 4
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    There are numerous options to visibly alter the appearance of physical keys, from inexpensive sticker sets, to replacement keys, to keyboards with digital displays on each key (e.g. Optimus Popularis), to various kinds of virtual, touchscreen-based keyboard. Of course, the more electronically complex keyboards get, the more expensive they become and with more things that can go wrong and break, factors which make them unattractive options for digitally disadvantaged language communities, which are often also economically disadvantaged.

    The Optimus Popularis keyboard came out about ten years ago, was never mass-produced, and cost a lot of money. I have seen other keyboards with dynamic key display targeted at gamers, in which the symbols on each key can be customised for individual game controls, as well as representing language input. I don’t know how popular they are, because for hardcore gamers what matters most is speed of signal, not what the keys look like.

    Keyboards are often the cheapest piece of computer hardware, and people are used to not paying much for them. It will probably remain cheaper to buy multiple physical keyboards and switch between them for different language input than to buy a single keyboard that can display multiple language characters.
  • Igor Freiberger
    Igor Freiberger Posts: 259
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    This (a real improvement on keyboards) is a jump we are waiting for several years. It seems to finally become a reality in late 2026 with the inception of all-screen MacBooks. Although the feel of a touch-only digital keyboard is debatable, with such devices users could change the keys function and appearance to support any script or language. The rumors about all-screen MacBooks came from a trusted analyst, Ming-Chi Kuo, who uses to reveal new Apple releases with high precision.

    https://9to5mac.com/2024/05/23/all-screen-m5-macbook-with-foldable-display-rumored-for-2026/
  • Nick Shinn
    Nick Shinn Posts: 2,158
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    I’m really annoyed to get a new keyboard every time I am forced to upgrade my computer. I would like to be able to re-use my previous keyboard, or choose one with “typographic” features, such as curly quotes, minus sign, Sterling and Euro. Perhaps even an apostrophe!

    I used to have one with an extra “numerals” pad, which was also useful.
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,034
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    Oh, I always opt for the larger keyboard with the number pad, separate cursor keys, etc. Over the years when I used a PC as my main computer, I had several large keyboards with a bunch of specialised and programmable keys.
    ______

    Here is another relatively inexpensive solution to the physical key display problem: thin silicon overlays. This one is for XSKN Logic Pro X 10 shortcuts:


    It would like to find out how (in)expensive these are to produce in small volumes, and whether they’re an option for custom keyboards.
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,034
    edited June 4
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    Here is something that seems to be relatively rare, a physical keyboard manufactured for users of a specific piece of software, in this case Adobe Premier Pro video editing:



    And this one is for Fincal Cut Pro:
    This looks like it might be a mechanical keyboard, in which case the only parts that need to be customised are the keys, which can be swapped in on a generic base.
  • Thomas Phinney
    Thomas Phinney Posts: 2,785
    edited June 4
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    With an adapter, you can still use external keyboards from the 1980s or 90s on current computers, whether ADB (Mac) or PS/2 (PC).


  • Andreas Stötzner
    Andreas Stötzner Posts: 781
    edited June 4
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    .
  • Andreas Stötzner
    Andreas Stötzner Posts: 781
    edited June 4
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    .
  • Nick Shinn
    Nick Shinn Posts: 2,158
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    I’m puzzled how anyone could disagree with my previous post.
    As far as I am aware, it’s not possible to buy a new iMac without a new keyboard included.
    And I’m pretty sure I know my own feelings (such as annoyance) better than anyone else!
  • John Butler
    John Butler Posts: 266
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    To be clear: for less than 200 US Dollars, shipped inside the US at least, you can buy a mechanical keyboard with custom printed keycaps (simply upload your SVG based on their template) in a variety of colors, with the print itself in a variety of colors, from WASDkeyboards and likely other manufacturers as well. Get one printed in a font you’ve designed yourself, even. It can be language-focused, application-focused, both, neither, completely blank, whatever.
    The Optimus keyboard was a commercial failure. I wonder whether the next successful display-in-a-button device will be a keyboard for input, or a “groovebox” or other similar music/video control surface like the Native Instruments Maschine lineup or some video control box. The Flux Keyboard Kickstarter is close to what I would want, though I prefer a full ISO 105-key layout. There are also compromises like this that combine a mechanical keyboard with a touchscreen, essentially a taller version of what Apple tried then abandoned on Macbook Pro keyboards.
  • Nick Shinn
    Nick Shinn Posts: 2,158
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    I would settle for a small add-on device with five keys, one for each quote mark plus apostrophe.
    It would also have a knob with three pre-sets: curly quotes, German curly quotes, and guillemots.
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,034
    edited June 5
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    Nick, something like this?


  • Ray Larabie
    Ray Larabie Posts: 1,387
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    @Nick Shinn I've been using an external 3-key keyboard from Sayodevice, which has proven incredibly useful for various projects. This device stands out because, instead of relying on drivers, it connects via a web browser to adjust parameters stored directly on the keyboard. This feature ensures that when you plug it into another computer, it retains its settings.

    These keyboards are available in different key combinations, and you can customize them with your own sticker caps. They're also quite affordable—mine cost around $20. Additionally, you can change the LED colors or turn them off entirely. While there are many brands of external keyboards, Sayodevice worked for me. I've seen some other devices with knobs, but I'm not sure if they can be configured to shift the keys.
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,034
    edited June 5
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    Or, more simply.


    There’s a huge market for these mini input devices across many industries and consumer uses, so there’s a lot of choice.

    I am not sure how programmable the dial is in terms of using it to affect the input from the keys. That seems like a good idea, but I think the dials are usually used for other kinds of control, e.g. volume or brightness, rather than being step changes.
  • Kamal Mansour
    Kamal Mansour Posts: 20
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    Taking into consideration the current state of display technology, it would really make sense to build keyboards whose keytops are individual display devices (LCD/LED/Liquid Paper). Once you activate a particular layout, the various symbols would display on the appropriate keytop. Upon switching layout, the keys would shift to display the new set of symbols. All the technological factors are now in place to enable this transition to happen. Except for the tactile sense, we are already living this reality on mobile devices, but not yet on laptops. Isn't it time?
  • Thomas Phinney
    Thomas Phinney Posts: 2,785
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    @Kamal Mansour That is exactly what the Flux Keyboard kickstarter (previously linked by @John Butler above) was trying to do. They have a regular website as well.

    It is an interesting product. Basically it is a 1920x1080 screen with transparent keys on it. The keyboard has onboard memory and can be configured to do all sorts of custom things. I worry about what happens once it is no longer actively supported, though.

    Mind you, the Kickstarter intro is over, the MSRP is $450 USD, they were supposed to ship in November 2023 to January 2024, and AFAIK nobody has seen actual shipping product yet. Supposedly batch 5 can be ordered now and will arrive in September 2024, which suggests previous batches are arriving Right Away, but have not yet arrived. However, on their FAQ they make no commitments on shipping dates.
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,034
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    The technology for on-key-display certainly exists, but I think there is a chicken/egg situation: the price point is way too high to generate demand—especially considering how cheap keyboards are in general—and without demand there isn’t enough scale to lower the cost.
  • Kamal Mansour
    Kamal Mansour Posts: 20
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    Thanks @Thomas Phinney. I had missed the details on Flux Keyboard.
    Yes, $450 is too high to tempt most people. 
  • John Butler
    John Butler Posts: 266
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    Add Elgato Stream Deck XL to the list.
  • Igor Freiberger
    Igor Freiberger Posts: 259
    edited June 7
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    Don't you prefer to add new key combinations to your keyboard shortcut layouts instead of using an additional or custom keyboard? In Windows, this can be done with the free Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator app. In Mac, there is the SIL Ukelele, also free, among other tools. Both are easy to use and will cost far less than a new special keyboard.

    With Ukelele, I added dozens of characters simply combining modifier keys with the regular ones —like Opt+hyphen to get the en dash, what I use all the time. Some combinations, especially using Ctrl, may not work in some apps due to other key attributions that take priority, but most of time I can type far more than the regular keyboard would allow me.

    And also there is the magnificent Better Touch Tool, which allows several improvements in all input ways you have. You can attribute new functions to keyboard shortcuts and also set sequences of commands like open an application, move the pointer to a given position, do clicks, trigger other keyboard shortcuts etc. It's Mac only.

    Referred software:
    https://folivora.ai/

    My map of keyboard with modifiers:




    Better Touch Tool:


  • John Savard
    John Savard Posts: 1,099
    edited June 8
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    I personally have quite an interest in computer keyboards and their layouts, and have expressed my own views on this matter on my website,
    One hypothetical keyboard I illustrate on my site is one with the Japanese keyboard layout, except that the space bar is normal-sized, as keys for switching between Kanji and Hiragana and so on aren't needed... as a keyboard for the Armenian language, which finally provides enough keys to handle it properly; that is, with a satisfactory assortment of punctuation without need to resort to the AltGr key.
    A while back, France sought a design for a keyboard that included all the accented letters for French in upper-case as well as lower-case, to give proper respect for the language. On my site, I present the eventual winner of that competition, as well as two ideas I had for addressing that demand - neither of which resembles that winner at all. (One simply broke up the pre-composed characters on the keyboard, for accents that would work on capital letters as well as lower-case; the other offered everything precomposed in both cases, at the price of using a third shift heavily - I commented that this would have been like some Armenian keyboards.)
    However, my primary concern is addressing the unmet needs of the most advantaged linguistic group, the users of the English-language keyboard in the United States layout. That's because I can't claim to be all that knowledgeable about the requirements of other languages.
    And what problems do users of the U.S. English layout still have?
    Well, computer keyboards, as contrasted with the keyboards of 44-key electric typewriters (or the Selectric I keyboard, for a specific example) have some keys in hard to reach places. Until the Model M keyboard, it was common for the Backspace and Enter keys to be hard to reach, and occasionally even one of the Shift keys was in the wrong place.
    The IBM PC, even with its original form, included a modification to the "typewriter-pairing" computer keyboard layout, which I believe that Hewlett-Packard introduced which creates an incompatibility with the old APL/ASCII standard for switching to APL charactes; I'm unhappy with this as well.
    On the front page of my site, I show a keyboard arrangement that fits ASCII into 44 keys by using the Control key more extensively; control characters previously accessed by Control-Shift key combinations are also dealt with.

    EDIT: On closer review of this thread, I see my comment did not address the OP's concern.
    One observation I can make is that I remember seeing, in a news item, a photo of a prototype keyboard from Microsoft that was similar to the Optimus Popularis in its principle of operation. This was the Microsoft Adaptive Keyboard from 2009.
    I agree, though, that cost makes this sort of thing impractical.
    But one relevant thing connects to my original post: sometimes keyboards need to have more keys than is usual, and thus more than can be easily reached. Of course, a malleable keyboard, while it can't grow more keys, can still help by making it easier to have more shifts.


  • Matteo B.
    Matteo B. Posts: 2
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    [Hello TypeDrawers!] I feel you. I'm typing on a 75% Norwegian mech myself with an AutoHotkey script for Italian accents, since this model doesn't have native numpad emulation.
    ('Cause yup, we use that. Going back and forth between OSes a kid gave me insight into how Microsoft's botched Italian layout probably ruined four generations of typists. But nobody wants to fix it, you're simply told to switch to US INTL).
    I wish there was a truly universal keyboard standard with Apple's diacritics input, HHK-like key placement improvements, and then the biggest possible space bar and enter. The rest (QWERT*, very expensive ergonomics), I don't care too much about.
  • John Savard
    John Savard Posts: 1,099
    edited June 14
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    Matteo B. said:
    Going back and forth between OSes a kid gave me insight into how Microsoft's botched Italian layout probably ruined four generations of typists.

    After I read your post, I immediately searched for the Macintosh Italian keyboard, and the Windows Italian keyboard, to compare the two.
    But the only differences I saw were these:
    On Windows, the Euro symbol is an AltGr shift of 5 as well as E; on the Macintosh, it's an AltGr shift of 3 as well as E.
    On Windows, the curly braces are available with Shift-AltGr on the same keys as the square brackets are available with AltGr. On the Macintosh, those keys only have the square brackets.
    These differences don't seem to be drastic enough to cause the kind of problems you refer to. What have I missed?
    EDIT: After I typed that, I realized that maybe it was the Italian keyboard for Linux that was the one that did it right. But for some reason, I couldn't find that keyboard arrangement online.
    So my next step was to look for a picture of the keyboard of an Italian typewriter. On a modern electric typewriter from Olivetti, what I would have expected the computer to largely follow, I found huge differences.
    As on a French keyboard, the digits are shifted characters.
    The positions of the letters W and Z are interchanged.
    Basically, the Italian keyboards on computers aren't really Italian keyboards!
  • Matteo B.
    Matteo B. Posts: 2
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    @John Savard Logically you see the accented characters keys placed as thoughtfully and assume everything is alright, which is true... but then the software side ruins it, due to a poor implementation. The Windows one in this case, where everything you need is somehow considered a special character.
    On Apple and I assume most Linux distros – I've only ever tried Ubuntu at home and at school –, everything is a simple combination away. That's two or three keys. On Windows if I want to type the uppercase accented grave E to begin a sentence, I have to press the regular Alt, input the decimal Unicode while holding Alt, and then release. That's five to seven presses, depending on the setup.
    Add the AltGr's limited role, the French cedilla and the paragraph sign considered more important than accented capitals, the other apostrophe and guillemets (which we really use in Italian!), and there you go. People still write Alt combos on sticky notes at their job to give you an idea of the experience.
    The author of this website that campaigns for a better layout has put a Google trend on the side of the home page which speaks volumes.

    Re: Olivetti, my parents threw out their typewriter when I was pretty young, we transitioned to computers super early in the family. I never wrote anything on one.
  • John Savard
    John Savard Posts: 1,099
    edited June 15
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    I understand now: the issue is that uppercase accented letters are missing from the Windows Italian keyboard, while Apple and Linux provide for them through additional special shift combinations.
    But although you did not use a typewriter, and so the differences between Italian computer keyboards and typewriter keyboards did not affect you, they still mystify me. In North America, initially most purchases of the IBM PC were by businesses, small and large, and very often secretaries who had used typewriters transitioned to using word processors on computers.
    Thus, while a few programming characters were added to the keyboard, the layout of a computer keyboard in North America was nearly identical to that of an electric typewriter. For something else to have been the case in Italy, therefore, seems strange enough to me as to require an explanation. (And also note that in France, computer keyboards, like typewriter keyboards, have the digits shifted and have an AZERTY layout - so why would the distinctive characteristics of French typewriters have been retained, while those of Italian typewriters were lost?)
    EDIT: I just checked the keyboard diagrams at the end oif the MS-DOS 5.0 manual. This isn't a DOS vs Windows thing, the Italian keyboard for MS-DOS 5.0 is similar to the current Windows one.
  • John Butler
    John Butler Posts: 266
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    @Matteo B. have you tried Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator? I modified the standard German layout to my own liking, but even the standard layout lets me type àèìòù ÀÈÌÒÙ using accent modifier keys before the letters.