Confessions of a Creative Maniac: Keys to Getting It In
CreativeCOW presents Confessions of a Creative Maniac: Keys to Getting It In -- What Computer Should I Buy? Editorial

Aside from the core role played by the pointing device, be it mouse, trackpad, trackball or any of the many other proxy devices used to essentially point at things on a screen, the keyboard remains the primary way for us to get the words from our brains to wherever -- or whomever -- those thoughts are directed.

I'm fully aware of the Dragon Naturally Speaking stuff in the many permutations that are floating around, which have undergone their own odd evolution and are currently sold commercially by Nuance -- their stuff is lovely, the free iPad version is truly cool, but it's still nowhere near the transparent magic of HAL 9000 in Kubrick's "2001", which offered personality along with flawless functionality (well, almost flawless). In the real world, we're stuck with the digital equivalent of the typewriter -- QWERTY and all historical baggage that comes along for the ride, despite valiant attempts by rogues like the Dvorak and chording cultists who pop up every few years.

When the iPhone first appeared, there was a vigorous debate about the viability of a screen-based touch keyboard, and while no one is typing out novel-length passages in the iPad (that I know of), most folks are making do with virtual keyboards just fine, or sticking with the RIM Blackberry, with its legions of hardcore fans devoted to those diminutive physical keys.

While the trend continues towards gesture, touch, tracking and voice interfaces, does this all spell the demise of the physical keyboard anytime soon? I sure hope not -- those of us who still spend an appreciable amount of the day creating words -- instead of simply consuming them -- rely on physical keyboards to actually get work done. This seemingly forgotten peripheral is still the most important link between the two brains at play here -- the computer's CPU, and the 21 grams of grey matter residing behind those windows to your soul. If you create words on a computer in just about any capacity, you're most likely using a keyboard to accomplish the task.

IBM Selectric globe samples (plus two Euro coin to compare size). Photo in public domain
IBM Selectric globe samples (plus Euro coin to compare size).
While my earliest memories of data entry revolve around my father's many IBM Selectric typewriters and his obsessive collection of interchangeable font balls, I was also there for the Apple II, Commodore VIC20 and 64, IBM PC and Mac 128.

Who can forget the clackity-clack cacophony of the infamous Model M tough-as-a-tank monster that shipped with the original IBM PC (article at PC, with sculpted-top keys that plopped with an extremely satisfying "klunk" as they hit bottom, the buckling spring key switches doing their job with a throaty mechanical roar? Anyone involved with computing in those days remembers what I'm typing about, and if you were cursed enough to work in an office full of open cubicles and IBM PCs, you're already breaking out in a cold sweat at the memory of the cacophony produced by all those mechanical key switches screaming out in unison. It was a din, make no mistake, but for those doing the typing, the physical dynamics were oddly, viscerally pleasing, in a way that is truly challenging to convey, while remaining extremely vivid in my tactile memory.

When it appeared with great fanfare in 1984 (shipping the same week as the original Mac 128), The IBM PCjr instantly created waves of revulsion, largely due to the truly dreadful "chiclet" keyboard -- rubber keys that spelled pure masochism for anyone typing more than a word or two. It was the most dismal failure in perhaps all of IBM's mass market history, a complete failure of engineering and ergonomics, only possibly rivaled by Apple's original round iMac mouse, a peripheral worthy of Marquis de Sade.

A bit more arcane were the brief microcomputer musings of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the makers of the classic PDP and VAX minicomputers. For a very short time, DEC attempted to sell their own version of a microcomputer, the DEC Rainbow, and besides the silly notion of a proprietary formatting scheme for their floppy disks (one had to purchase disks preformatted, considered outrageous even by standards of decency of the day), the standout memory of that dinosaur was the keyboard, which I can tell you from direct experience, had the best tactile touch of any keyboard I've used since, hands down. Pity it was welded to a boat anchor of a CPU, the bundling of Samna Word (a feature-rich, performance-poor word processor long lost in the sands of digital history) with that Rainbow system its only saving grace. Good luck finding a working example anywhere on Earth.

Anyone looking to relive old glories and drive their coworkers mad can find modern iterations of the original Model M thanks to the diligence of Unicomp, the keeper of the flame of buckling springs, with models for PCs and Macs alike ( I've also been a longtime fan of the specific spring tension of the keyboards made by DataDesk; the Mac-101E was my main axe for many years, and I still have my original multi-colored version of their scaled-down Lil'Big Board. Many longtime Mac-based journalists and writers hoarded the much-loved Apple Extended Keyboard II, and you still see them selling quite briskly on eBay. They were based on the ALPS mechanisms, which now live in the Matias Tactile Pro, a solid performer that does a really nice job, though it sells at a bit of a premium price. There are also other versions of tactile keyboards, like the popular line from Das Keyboard, including two different sounding units (one very clacky, one less so), and a sinister-looking unit devoid of any markings, the fretless bass of data entry.

The IBM PCjr with the "chiclet" keyboard.
I've been using a Matias Tactile Pro for the last half dozen years, but I realized that it was a bit on the loud side and posed a challenge when I record podcasts while plowing through browser pages and online support materials (I tend to use Google Doc for broadcasting notes). This dilemma led me to find the relatively unknown company DS International, and their line of Alps and Cherry mechanical switch offerings. Sadly, they've since discontinued their Mac Cherry switch version, but continue to support Windows users at really reasonable prices, perhaps I should break down and get one for my Windows box. I've recently noticed that my discontinued Mac version is giving me some problems; I keep meaning to call the company and plead for a replacement -- you never know what they might dig up in some forgotten corner of their warehouse.

I realize that I've left out the entire subcategory of ergonomic keyboards, of which there are many (Kinesis ergo), some with interesting design spins (such as this Microsoft model), and I admit that I've owned a couple of them in the past, but for whatever reason -- perhaps the lack of an affordable permutation which utilized decent tactile feedback switches -- those alternate designs never quite caught my eye -- or fingers. There are also oddball experiments (at least, in this columnist's opinion) like this -- even if it helps you type faster, it's not likely to be worth the $600 asking price. And I'd be remiss if I neglected mentioning the realm of Bluetooth keyboards that can ultimately be connected to smartphones and tablets, but it's been largely off my radar.

While I've been wanting to use my iPad more for serious writing, I haven't taken the time to look at any of the keyboard/carrying case combos for it, and most of them seem too much like the keyboard Apple bundles with their machines these days -- items that look nice, but don't feel like much of anything I want to spend hours making finger love to; perhaps I'll break down and connect one of my existing keyboards with the cheapo third-party camera connection kit I scored online.

If nothing else, I'm dying for the return of my beloved cursor keys, my main pet peeve of the iPad experience, and one that can't be solved by third party software, due to Apple not providing hooks to mod the standard keyboard in iOS. There's a lot I'm willing to put up with in getting along with technology, but anything that makes it more difficult to control things is never going to make people feel like they are indeed in control, a necessary illusion in any aspect of living, digital or analog.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

David Biedny is a multimedia artist, author and educator with over 30 years of industry experience. The author of various infamous Photoshop books and innovator in the early New York multimedia industry, Biedny worked on "Terminator 2: Judgement Day", "Memoirs of An Invisible Man", "The Rocketeer" and "Hook" at ILM, has authored hundreds of technical articles, reviews, columns and tutorials for a variety of publications, served as faculty at the School of Visual Arts, San Fransisco State University and NYU, lectured at Stanford University, and was present for much of the behind-the-scenes action during the formative years of the digital revolution. He currently teaches digital media in the design department of the Yale School of Drama.