Somehow, I don't think this will provide much solace to the millions using the IBM-PC, but IBM's personal computer arm has finally admitted that its infamous keyboard is a bummer.
It was a tacit admission. I don't mean to suggest that IBM made a formal announcement confessing to a blunder -- that's not Big Blue's way. But I think the admission was tacitly made when IBM revealed a new, improved keyboard for the top-of-the-line "AT" model of its personal computer. The new AT keyboard eliminates most of the problems with the standard version.
Judging from its past performance, you can guess what IBM is going to do about its keyboard problem. The company will continue to deny vigorously that there's anything wrong with its standard keyboard design. It will continue to issue those denials right up to the day when it announces -- sometime this summer, perhaps? -- that the AT keyboard will be made standard equipment for its entire personal computer line.
This change will be a boon to future computer purchasers (and a blow to those makers of IBM clones who are dumb enough to copy the poorly designed IBM keyboard). But it does nothing for the millions of computer owners who are stuck with IBM's folly.
For those people, there's little need to review the keyboard's shortcomings. The Return key, the most important of all, was designed so that your finger is almost guaranteed to miss it and hit something else half the time. Ditto for the Tab and Backspace keys. You can't ever tell whether the Shift Lock or Num Lock key has been pushed. Worst of all, IBM snuck in an extra key next to the "Z", where the left-hand shift key is supposed to be.
So what do you do if you're one of the millions stuck with this turkey(board)? As in every other aspect of personal computing, there are several options.
You could go out and buy a new keyboard to replace the one that came with your $3,000 computer. There are several firms that build the keyboard IBM should have made in the first place.
The best-known, Keytronics (Box 14687, Spokane, Wa. 99214), makes a broad line of keyboards with all the keys in the right place and with indicators to tell you when you're in Shift Lock or Num Lock.
I've recently tried the keyboard that comes with the Zenith Z-150 PC, an IBM clone that does not replicate IBM's keyboard errors. I'm told that Zenith is going to sell this keyboard separately, although the price evidently hasn't been set yet.
The problem with this approach is that is cost. Keytronics' line starts at about $210 (or $180 by mail order). Zenith equipment tends to be fairly pricey and its keyboard, too, will probably land in the $200-plus range.
I know a simpler, or at least cheaper, solution. You just get out your macroprocessor and . . .
What? You don't have a "macroprocessor" program -- a piece of software you can use to reprogram the keys on your computer? If not, you're missing something. These programs can really enhance your computing power. Programs like "Prokey," "MagiKey," and "Keyswap" let you program a single key to give your computer one or a series of commands. You can, for example, copy a word-processing file, check it for accuracy, send it to your printer and exit to another program, all with a single key stroke -- if you've programmed that key with the appropriate commands. A command string code like that is called a "macro," hence the term "macroprocessor."
You can also use these programs to change individual keys on the keyboard. If you're one of those people who can never find the quotation mark key with your little finger, you can just move it to the spot where, say, the "6" key is now.
Many computer users have used this power to redesign the standard keyboard completely. The most common alternative to the traditional "qwerty" typewriter layout (that name comes from the top row of keys) is a design called "Dvorak" that puts all the vowels in a line on the center row of keys and makes punctuation marks easier to reach. If you can adapt to it, Dvorak is likely to double your typing speed.
I used the Keyswap program ($125 from Rickerdata Inc., Box 998, Melrose, Ma.) to redesign my IBM keyboard. I turned that Backslash key next to the Z into the Shift key it should have been in the first place. I moved the cursor controls over to the function key pad -- much easier to reach -- and made the Tilde key into a second Return key, so I effectively have the L-shaped Return key IBM failed to provide. Keyswap also let us program an audible "Beep" that sounds whenever I go into Shift Lock or Num Lock.
At this point, though, I had a bunch of keys that didn't do what the keyboard said they would. To avoid terminal confusion, I got a set of 12 new keytops ($21.95 from Hooleon Co., Box 201, Cornville, Az. 86325) and stuck them on the keys I had changed. They look good and work perfectly.
Which leaves only one unanswered question: Why did IBM make us go to all this trouble?