Keyboards have come full circle

REUTERS Photo Illustration/Tim Wimborne

REUTERS Photo Illustration/Tim Wimborne

, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:53 PM ET

Computers and technology go in cycles.

A perfect example is how in the '60s and '70s computers followed a model of one giant "supercomputer" with a bunch of simpler, "dumb" terminals connected to them.

The personal computer changed all that as the machine itself became very powerful and self-contained. The reliance on the mini-computer or mainframe computer was gone as the machines ran autonomously.

With our reliance on the Internet increasing, the need for "supercomputers" on our desks has subsided and lower-powered computers and tablets are now dominating the space. We have, in a sense, come full circle.

Keyboards have also done this in a sense, although what has made a reappearance of sorts was actually a big failure at the time.

When IBM introduced the IBM Personal Computer Model 5150 in 1981, it changed the world forever. As the model that the majority of today's modern computers are still fashioned from (over three decades later), it would appear that the large business company could do no wrong.

However, computer manufacturers struggled with standards and market share in the '80s and IBM made some pretty big mistakes when it introduced its model 4860, also known as the "IBM PCjr" (spoken as "PC junior"). While the 5150 was targeted towards business, the junior was intended to take over the home market. Instead, it has all but been forgotten.

While the PCjr was woefully underpowered when it came to memory and other features, it did have some unique capabilities. The most startling was the introduction of a wireless keyboard in 1984.

The first models were shipped with what would become known as the "chiclet" keyboard which more formally was known as the freeboard. The name comes from the similarity between the keys and Chiclet gum.

In the case of the PCjr, the white keys with no labelling particularly mimicked their chewy counterparts. Although it wasn't the first computer with this style of keyboard, it was certainly one of the more notable.

The problem was that almost everyone hated it. IBM responded by offering a more traditional replacement with labelled keys and more of a "full stroke" set of keys, similar to what most computers ship with today.

When we fast-forward to what we are used to today, it turns out that the laptop is most likely the inspiration for many of the changes. Flatscreen monitors evolved from the laptop and it turns out that some computer companies (most notably Apple) decided that some people actually liked the flatter, more chiclet style of keys that notebooks offered and decided to pair them with traditional desktop computers like their iMac line. Other manufacturers have taken note.

I'm typing this article with the Penclic mini keyboard which reminds me a lot of my Mac while using my PC and takes up a whole lot less desktop real estate. I'm using the wireless model (K2) which offers a lot of freedom in terms of location but there is also a wired version (C2) and it's available in various languages and colours. It is amazingly light and comes with rechargeable batteries. It took me a little while to adjust but so far I haven't found anything I can't do with it that I can do on a traditional keyboard.

The Griffin Wired Keyboard for iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch reminds me even more of a genuine Apple product. In certain work environments, Bluetooth does not work very well, so this is a great alternative. And no batteries are required - just plug and go. You might look a little strange using an iPhone with this keyboard but it's thing and light enough to fit into a bag easily and would let you get your work done more efficiently than touch typing.

Finally, I scaled things down trying out the Fav1 Smart Stick Keyboard Controller. Although it was designed to work with the Smart Stick product (that turns into TV into a Smart TV), it can be used with any Android device or most game consoles connected to your TV. It's the size of a standard remote but offers a full keyboard that is surprisingly usable in such a small space.

In some ways, keyboards have changed tremendously over the years and in many other ways they have stayed surprisingly the same. I suppose the "key" to the mystery is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC/Methapharm. You can reach him via e-mail at sbolton@bfree.on.ca or on Twitter @sydbolton.


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