Friday, 8 June 2012

The Electronic Keyboard and its Evolution

You have most likely struck a few keys in order to find this article, but how often do you think about the humble QWERTY device sat before you? Is your input-device a yellow-tinged beige ‘IBM-M’ or are you more of a sleek smartphone user (‘physical keyboards are so 2005!’)? Either way, the keyboard layout itself is something which has changed little since its inception and evolution from mechanical typewriters.

This article will look at how the technology of the humble keyboard has evolved over the years and what the future will hold for this ubiquitous piece of kit.

The first electronic keyboards
Starting in the late 1960s to early 1970s, the only people who would require the need to input data into a computer would be engineers working on data terminals – as a result, the first alphanumeric input devices for these kinds of systems was created using very different technologies to the cheap and easy to manufacture keyboards available for the price of a cup of coffee today – these keyboards primarily used magnetically controlled semiconductors, operating with individual switches mounted onto metal frames – the lifespan of such items was much greater than the common membrane keyboards of today, as these were manufactured at higher cost and produced in much lower batches.

Later in the 1970s, some other technologies started to surface, such as the first capacitive-type key switches, which used plastic sheets which would detect changes in the capacitance upon being depressed by the users’ fingers – overall, this type of technology reduced the cost of manufacture, but this didn’t stop manufacturers from designing ever more complex systems in the quest for the ultimate input device.

Early mechanical keyboards – birth of the ‘clicky keyboard’
IBM manufactured a classic in the early half of the 1980s – the ‘Model M Keyboard’, which heralded in the era of the satisfyingly noisy, tactile ‘clicky’ keyboards which soon could be seen (and heard!) in offices and at home computers setups the world over; the secret to the Model M’s success was its special ‘buckling spring’ key design, which allowed for keycaps to be replaced easily and allowed for both auditory and tactile feedback – the keyboard and its switches became legendary in terms of usability and also in their robustness – many of these keyboards are still operating to this day and are showing no signs of slowing down! This keyboard seemed like nirvana to touch typists, who flocked to the shops to purchase these beige beauties…how could the keyboard evolve from this?

‘Insane in the membrane’
With the success of the ‘buckling-spring’ technology used in the ‘IBM M’, other manufacturers were not far behind and before long, ‘Mechanical-switch’ keyboards started to come on the scene – these used mechanically actuated switches under each key, resulting in similar properties to the ‘buckling spring’, but with different configurations being available – such options have increased over the years, with one of the biggest manufacturers being ‘Cherry’, a German firm whose technology can be found in many branded keyboards, who now offer such switch options as: ‘Cherry blue’ (tactile and auditory feedback – you can hear and feel a ‘click’ when the key is depressed), ‘Cherry brown’ (tactile feedback with no auditory ‘click’), all the way through to totally linear options, such as the ‘Cherry black’ switch type, which  gives no tactile or auditory feedback (typically this would be used for non-typing applications, such as playing video games) – these new mechanical keyboards inherited the usability and reliability boons of the buckling spring technology but added even more options for the end-user, resulting in a wide choice to suit any application.
In tandem with the mechanical switches, a new type of cheap, easy-to-mass-produce keyboard technology surfaced – ‘membrane’ keyboards: these would use flexible pressure pads with keys printed on them – their only downside? These keys offered very little in the way of tactile feedback and made touch-typing nigh-on impossible for the majority of users.

Welcome to the dome
Dome-switches can be found in the majority of today’s keyboards – these fall somewhere in-between membrane and mechanical keyboards, in that a conventional plastic key array sits atop a flat-sheet membrane with various ‘bumps’ or domes across its surface – the key actuation pushes the dome onto the circuit below-hand; these keyboards are cheap and easy to mass-produce, whilst allowing for similar tactile properties to a mechanical keyboard – their downside? The expected life-span of such a keyboard is around five million cycles, whereas a good-quality mechanical keyboard can easily handle upwards of fifty-million cycles.

The future?
Some have speculated that laser and touch-screen ‘virtual’ keyboards  are the way forward – indeed, as far as mobile devices are concerned, these offer many advantages, the primary one being their adaptability;
However, when it comes to good-old-fashioned Data Entry or serious gaming, it would seem that enthusiasts and typists alike are reverting back to mechanical technology, with 1990s keyboards fetching decent prices on ‘Ebay’ and the like, as well as manufacturers such as ‘Cherry’ pumping out various ‘flavours’ of switches to go in a range of enthusiast keyboards, such as hard-core gaming keyboards like the ‘Corsair Vengeance K60’ (with its machined aluminium chassis and ultra-low actuation force ‘Cherry reds’), or the ‘Das Keyboard’ – a proper typists’ keyboard, which can be bought minus any key characters printed on the keys (you would need to ‘use the force’ as a touch-typist with this one!).

So, whatever the future holds, it seems that we will still be clicking away for some time yet!

Author: Philip Gibson is a Data Entry specialist who offers Automatic Data Capture services and Data Input consultation to his clients – he writes all of his articles using his trusty ‘Cherry G80’ keyboard.Read our guidelines to be a Guest Author at TechGau.Org
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Gautham A S

Gautham A S is a personal tech columnist and blogging expert at TechGau.Org, one of the leading Tech, How-To and Blogging Tips blogs in the world..