It makes perfect sense that the awkward term WYSIWYG
– “what you see is what you get” – came into prominence only during the era of computers
. For typewriters, what you saw was never not,
with the paper output being both the first and the last step in the process, and the typebars matching the keys one to one. Even the non-printing keys (Tab, Return, Margin Release…) only had to be learned once, and afterwards never changed their purpose.
Computers complicated things. Suddenly, keyboards meant polyamorous function keys, shortcuts, macros
, accelerators, secret semigraphics
, modifiers like Ctrl and Meta and ⌥ – and three, four, or five legends per key.
What’s more, without mechanical linkages any key could conceivably become any other key at the moment’s notice. It happened more often than anyone realized: with any application switch. WordStar’s F3 was different than VisiCalc’s, and that created an interesting challenge: many people worked exclusively in one app, getting used to its particular (and often peculiar) keyboard language – but each person’s main app was a different one. And most keyboards had to be made for everybody.
What to do? Help screens and instruction manuals were slow, and far away. Custom key caps? Expensive. Relegendable keys – those with two plastic pieces and a paper insert – cumbersome. Either way, with at most 19mm² of room, there was only so much you could fit on one key.
And so app newcomers started adorning keyboards with tactical explanations made via technology that predated even typewriters – pen and paper: