58 Keys

Just to say, it kills me beginning a blog title or actually any sentence with a number. It’s as knife-scraping as beginning one with a lowercase letter. Consequently, having written very many articles and news stories about the likes of the iPhone, I’m used to contorting headlines to fit in one word, any word, before the offending digit or lowercase. In this one situation, though, putting anything before “58 Keys” would change it.

“The 58 Keys” would make you think of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, for instance. “The Mystery of the 58 Keys” is Agatha Christie if you’re normal, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators if you’re less so.

Mind you, just saying 58 Keys is at risk of putting you in mind of either Edgar Allen Poe or, in a slightly different chain of thought, Florida.

Somehow I think it’s fitting, however, that you are very unlikely to read that title and know what this is about yet it is impossible that you haven’t been affected by it. Now it sounds like a disease.

It’s just this. I offer that every artistic, sporting, engineering, scientific, medical, architectural, sculptural, scriptural, design or really any human endeavour, any human thought of the last thirty years has gone via a keyboard. That’s obviously true for writers but a sculptural artist, say, he or she may work with stone and chisels but at some point they email a gallery describing it.

Amateur photographers not intending to ever sell their work and, let’s go to an extreme here, too illiterate to write a caption, they still use a keyboard. Whether it’s holding down the Option key as they choose a function in Photoshop or it’s logging in to Flickr as CrazyNutBoy99, they use a keyboard.

We never think about this, most especially not if we’re touch typists, because we’re thinking about the work we do. The keyboard and our fingers on it are the bridge from our thoughts to the physical reality of what we’re creating. And I’m just fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by how pressing these keys means I get to talk to you. By how using exactly the same keys I will unthinkingly, unconsciously switch from writing words to issuing commands: I press Command-S to save my work do much that the S key is worn down.

If you’re reading this on a phone or a tablet then you’ve got an onscreen keyboard that pops up when you need it and hides away again when you don’t. If you’re on a laptop then these days the keys are probably what’s called a Chiclet style unless it’s a Butterfly mechanism or in Microsoft’s case a curious cloth-like one.

The type of key varies from silent and virtual to the mechanical Cherry keyboard that clacks away terribly satisfyingly to the ears of those of us trained on manual typewriters. The number of keys varies a lot too. It’s not that I usually go around counting them, honest, it’s more that for decades the standard layout for a computer keyboard has been what’s called the PC AT one with 102 keys. When you see the QWERTY layout with a numeric keypad to the right and arrow keys between the two, it’s probably 102 keys.

That is a standard, whether you’re using QWERTY or something like France’s AZERTY. That is also a standard whether you’re in the UK or the US, though for unfathomable historical reasons, our two nations have different keyboards. In the UK, the Return key is a tall one that takes up the space of two keys vertically. In America, it’s a wide one that takes up two key spaces horizontally. Nutters.

Even so, it’s the same number of keys and you have never looked at me so strangely before. Let me hurry to explain why I’ve called this 58 Keys and not 102.

It’s the Mac.

The original Apple Macintosh is the reason we have iPhones and iPads, it’s the reason we have Windows. And, yes, that original Mac had 58 keys on it.

There should’ve been 62. People at Apple fought over four more keys and they lost. Steve Jobs rejected four keys. He rejected the arrow keys. You can think that’s taking micro-management too far, but there was a reason.

He refused to allow the original Mac keyboard to have these arrow or cursor keys because if it had them, people would use them. Since it didn’t, there was no other way to move your cursor around the screen than to use the mouse. This was the first time any public computer had included a mouse and, as strange as it seems today, it was bloody hard to grasp what in the world this thing was for.

Taking away four keys meant you had to use the mouse and it’s part of why we did so it’s part of why we got to move away from those green or yellow phosphorus text displays into full-screen, full-colour, overlapping windows.

Even if you have never used a Mac, even if you’re a die-hard PC fan and even if you’ve only ever had your phone as a computer, the decision to give the Mac just 58 keys shaped everything we do today.

There’s no reason to say this to you now, no particular anniversary, no keyboard launch and definitely no way to explain why I currently have about nine keyboards in my house. But you will spend time at some keyboard today, whether that’s onscreen or physical, and you will every day. We could get really deep into how mechanical keys work, we could dive into how onscreen keyboards invisibly expand the letter you’re most likely to type next. But let’s just take a moment to notice how this small thing has world-changing impact.

Sticking to type

Earlier this week I needed to get a photograph of a keyboard for a colleague on a project. Easy, I said, do you want a shot of the two I carry in my bag or of the three on my desk?

Easy, they said right back, you’re scaring us now and we’re just going to be over here, phoning other writers and a few medical experts.


Look, I can make my keyboard obsession seem perfectly normal and healthy if you’ll just let me tell you two things. One is that, excuse me, plenty of writers through the years have fixated on their 2B pencils or expensive fountain pens, I’m just ahead of the technology curve.

Okay. That didn’t work. Fine. This will. I can make the keyboard stuff seem perfectly sensible by blowing it out of the water with something worse.

For by coincidence, someone else asked me two days ago what I write in. I like her so I should’ve just said “English” rather than being boring for an hour but, pretend to be shocked, I chose the boring option. For an hour I answered that I write in Microsoft Word. And Apple Pages. Scrivener. Ulysses, Final Draft. Evernote. Apple Notes. Drafts 4. OmniOutliner. DEVONthink.

I’ve weaned myself off also using Simplenote. I never quite got into Bear Notes, Typed, Vesper, BBEdit, MarsEdit or the various flavours of WordPress but there’s still time. Ooooh, also Slack.

What I don’t understand is how I use all of these apps every day and for whatever it is that I’m writing. Without thinking, I automatically know which one I’m going to work in. That’s a bit bleedin’ obvious when I’m writing scripts because that’s what Final Draft is for – except, mind you, Scrivener is good for scriptwriting and some places I write for are less fussed about formatting and more fussed that you must deliver in Word.

So, yeah, occasionally I can’t find a piece of work because I don’t remember which app I wrote it in, but that’s just normal, everyday sane first-world problems.

What I very much don’t understand, though, is how writing can physically feel so different in each of these apps, on each of my dozen current projects. In every case I’m typing on the same keyboards into the same machines, iPad, iPhone and Mac, but they feel different. Seriously. Also, when I’ve been writing in Ulysses for iPad using an external keyboard and then go to use Scrivener for Mac with a very similar external keyboard, my fingers react differently.

A pianist I know says she finds the same thing when she goes between a Church organ and a regular piano.

I can understand that for her yet can’t explain that great difference I find where there surely can’t be any. It’s as well that I’m not fussed about justifying it as I can’t. And you may have been looking at me funny for the last couple of minutes but I’ve been thinking about this stuff for years.

Which is why there is one thing that I do understand about my fussing over keyboards and about my constant search for the next thing to write in.

It’s because that’s a damn sight easier than searching for the next thing to write.

That’s what I should’ve told my what-do-you-write-in friend: I write in the tiny amounts of time between my having been able to successfully distract myself.

She was asking, incidentally, because she’s been using Word and knows there are alternatives. I showed her all the ones on the iPad I had with her and some appealed, some didn’t, but we talked about what she wanted and ended up agreeing that Word is fine for her. It’s fine enough and she knows it well so she’ll stick with that.

So apparently I can cut through the crap when it’s someone else’s writing, I can see clearly what they need and how they’re just postponing writing. I can see that just making any decision about an app or a keyboard is better for everybody.

Except me. I’ll definitely crack on with this collection of Time stories I’m writing, though I’ll just wait until the new update to OmniOutliner for iPad is out.