söndag 23 juni 2013

Editorial: Keyboards

I am not an IT professional, but I have a bit of experience with computers, primarily Microsoft Windows and Office. Therefore, I tend to be the go-to guy at the office for the simple, everyday PC troubleshooting stuff.

If I were to prepare an FAQ containing, say, the top 10 most common problems that average Windows and Office users encounter, I guarantee you that accidental keyboard layout switching would be #1.

Sorting and pronunciation rules aside, every letter that is used in the English language is also used in Swedish. Then we tack on three umlaut characters (Å, Ä and Ö) at the end of the alphabet. Punctuation works likewise. All commonly-used programs automatically detect which language you're writing in, and adjust the inline spell checker accordingly. Still, Microsoft finds it necessary to activate keyboard layout switching via the Alt-Shift command as a default setting in Windows. What's the point, really? All the Alt-Shift command does is create confusion and frustration, because it is all too easy to hit that key combination by accident when you're typing and switching between open apps. All of a sudden, the "Swedish characters disappear" and my name is inevitably called.

Of course, you can get around this, by uninstalling English and Danish keyboard layouts and then deactivating the Alt-Shift shortcut via the Language toolbar. But it is a workaround that should not have to be performed in the first place.

While we're on the subject of computer keyboards, I find more and more evidence of how manufacturers cut corners nowadays by simplifying and combining. The first thing I noticed when I bought my old HP was that the "Swedish keys" were noticeably different from the rest of the keys, like they came from two different production batches. The characters were adjusted towards the upper left corner of the key, instead of being centered like B, C and H, etc. Of course, this could hardly matter less in actual usage, because I watch the screen as I'm typing and never the keys. It just looked tacky.

That was three years ago. Newer keyboards look even tackier - and cheaper. Most modern Swedish keyboards aren't strictly Swedish anymore, but a weird form of pan-Scandinavian. The Å, Ä and Ö keys, for instance, are crowded with the Norwegian and Danish equivalents (the Danish keyboard layout, for some strange reason, flips Ä and Ö...) and some of the dead keys have all sorts of squiggles on them. It is interesting in a weird sense, because one is led to wonder what sort of deliberate reasoning is involved when formulating the layout. "Okay, the Swedes have the § sign on that key, so let's move it... there!"

I like saying that the difference between good and great is the attention to detail. But it has also been brought home to me that perfect quite often is the enemy of good enough. Intellectually, I realize that there are serious cost savings involved in this keyboard simplification scheme.

In a previous life, I bought widgets such as screws for industrial customers, and there was always complaints about price increases, and lots of questions about what we could do to make the screws cheaper. The counter-argument is always that the real savings are done by the customer himself, but cutting down on the variety of fasteners that are used in production. Fewer variants means higher volumes per variant, which not only simplifies things a lot, but automatically leads to better prices.

I can only imagine that it works in the same way for computer manufacturers. A computer such as my Lenovo is probably not made willy-nilly. Each little component quite likely has a part number. Most probably have several, because an average key starts out as an anonymous black key and only later acquires its identity and purpose in life by having a white A or Q painted or glued onto it. The fewer part numbers they have to keep track of - which incidentally is cascaded as you move further towards the finished product - the more potential for savings. So long as those savings are (mostly) passed on to us end users and not just used to line the pockets of the executives.

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