Monday, December 20, 2010

Is That Annoying Modal Caps Lock Key Going Away?

So Google came out with their new Chrome Operating System, loaded it onto a laptop and gave the whole caboodle of people to play with and comment on. While Chrome OS has generated a lot of comments, the largest and most active discussion has been about the Caps Lock key. You see, Google has changed the behavior of the key that used to be Caps Lock to instead call up a search page. I am sure this change was made to pander to keyboard weenies who want to Google without having to lift their hands from the keyboard. Anyway, the change has backfired. Instead of talking about Chrome OS, everyone is engaged in a furious discussion of why the Caps Lock is either essential or should have been disposed of a long time ago.

I have two problems with the Caps Lock, no make that three. The first problem is that it sits right between two important keys. Below is the Shift key whose importance needs no explanation. Above it is the Tab key, used for next field, command completion, automatic indent and plenty of other useful purposes. In the middle sits Caps Lock just waiting to be hit by accident. This brings to the next problem, Caps Lock is modal. Hit the Caps Lock key by accident and you do not make just one typing mistake, rather the whole keyboard is shifted into a new mode and the error compounds. By the time I look at the screen, I have typed half a sentence in the wrong case.

I am a member of the tribe that hates modal user interfaces with a passion. Some of my compatriots physically remove the Caps Lock key or reprogram their keyboard to reduce typing errors. I have only gone as far as to disable that other annoying modal key. The Insert key is used by many editors to switch between insert mode and overtype mode. If you hit Caps Lock by accident, the result is obvious, if you hit Insert by accident you can go on for some time before you realize that you are seriously damaging the document that you are trying to fix up. Of course, the Insert key is slightly off the main keyboard, right above the really useful Delete key and just waiting to be hit by accident.

My final problem with the Caps Lock key is that if you are in Caps Lock mode and you press shift, it reverts back to entering lower case. This means that when I hit cAPS lOCK by accident every key I type is in the wrong case, not just some of them. I happen to have an old typewriter from the 1930's so I know what shift really means. The Shift key causes the whole paper carriage and platen to move so that when the typebar comes down a different type piece strikes the ink ribbon and paper. Shifting the platen is why it is called the Shift key and it is a heavy key to hold, so there is a Shift Lock key that is a mechanical lock to hold the platen in the shifted position. With the platen locked in the shift position, hitting the shift key does nothing, so why has someone gone to the trouble of programming bogus behavior in out modern and supposedly more convenient keyboards?

Now, I know that there are people who love the Caps Lock key and who use it all the time. For my part, given the choice between a key that causes a small typing mistake every time I hit it by accident and a key that brings up a new web page by accident, I will choose the Caps Lock function every time. Caps Lock is annoying but I have lived with it for a long time and it is much smaller surprise than a new page that I do not want.

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