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The worst keyboard ever made

Shift Happens book updates
The worst keyboard ever made
By Shift Happens book updates • Issue #25 • View online

I’m writing this newsletter under duress. The last issue, one I sent just a week ago, arrived in spam folders for most people owing to a glitch in Revue – and I really wanted you to know about the livestream that’s happening this Saturday.
But this also presents a fun opportunity. The many recent issues of the newsletter were complex mini essays, and it might be fun to do something much simpler. So let’s just talk about three bad keyboards I’ve gotten recently!
Keyboard №1
I watched the TV show Chernobyl with a pit in my stomach, but also – please, do not judge me – a strange sense of nostalgia.
I grew up in Poland, still communist then, and I remember the Chernobyl accident. I have a vivid memory of my mom grabbing the little me and my even younger sister to go to a doctor and drink iodine in the middle of the night. (I was eight and please do not assume I’m a reliable narrator, although I know my memories are correct at least in broad strokes.)
But what also struck me when watching the show is how it reminded me of the general shoddiness of things that surrounded us then. It wasn’t just the nuclear reactor that was built poorly. I remember everything being built poorly. The Russian TV we watched, our shared cassette player, the infrastructure of the playground that I never visited after getting a home computer, my Soviet clone of Game & Watch, even Polish computer magazines when compared to a British one my dad brought from his visit abroad:
So when recently I saw this “Vintage AT/XT Keyboard, has signs of age, as is” keyboard on eBay, I jumped up in recognition:
I had to have it. I was ready to pay a lot for it, but luckily I didn’t have to: where I saw a lot of warm feelings, most people saw just a shitty keyboard.
The keyboard didn’t fall apart in transport. It arrived two weeks ago. The label identifies it as being made in Ukraine in 1993. It’s a clone of the IBM 101-key Model M keyboard released half a decade earlier, and often called “the mother of all keyboards” for its elegance and superior feel. The Model M was one of the five most important keyboards in history; in the book, it has its own chapter and a half. 
But there is no elegance or superior feel here. There is, actually, perhaps nothing great that can be said about it at all.
Everything feels cheap. The plastics are yellowed, the grays are ugly, the sides of the case are not straight lines, the legends do not align and are barely readable to begin with, the keys easily rotate off center and so they feel uneven. Key presses are mushy. Even the key shapes are rudimentary, to say the least.
All the larger keys are stepped – a jargon for keys that are small islands on big platforms – which is a common trick to make the keys more stable without needing stabilizers. (You force the typist’s finger to press the key in its center, rather than make the key more stable when it’s pressed off-center.) For reference, The IBM PC keyboard used that technique in 1981 – and abandoned ten years before this keyboard.
The way the stock LEDs are mounted into the keyboard is… well, it’s actually inspiring.
I even suspect that the spacebar – the only truly large key – couldn’t have been made longer without the plastic cracking or warping, and so the other modifier keys have been pulled closer to the center to compensate. (The F12 key is likewise not aligned because of the LED of Scroll Lock sticking out.)
There is none of the elegance of model M here…
…but in a strange and convoluted way, it reminds me of home.
Keyboard №2
I keep coming back to keypads of calculators because it’s a rich tapestry – the limited space, depth, and often budget often result in some truly creative solutions. But where things get particularly interesting is when calculator keypads become keyboards. Squeezing in a full QWERTY is tricky even on some laptops, so imagine trying to do this on a device that is not only much smaller, but oriented the wrong way.
As far as I understand, the template for calculators has been set by a legendary HP41C from 1979, the first calculator with a full assortment of letters:
This was a professional machine and I bet its creators would’ve loved to put QWERTY on it – but with only five keys across, it was impossible. 
Instead, the letters go from A to Z, top to bottom, left to right, superimposed in blue on all the other keys, available in an alphabetic mode activated by a unique key. This results in a strange almost-grid, with N being peculiarly large. 
It’s an okay-feeling keyboard, and one that support overlays that can change its meaning, or protect it from dust.
But I’m not here to talk about HP41. 
The one keyboard that blew me away when I learned about it was one from a much newer TI Nspire calculator, released in 2007.
On a surface, it follows the same principle – alphabetical ordering, going from top to bottom, left to right. But instead of a mode on top of existing keys, it does something I don’t think I’ve seen any other keyboard do. It wedges the alphabetic keys in between other keys:
It’s kind of ridiculous, and you might imagine it’s a really bad idea, but I needed to get one to check it out anyway. When it arrived, I typed on it, and to my astonishment… I think it actually works well? I was prepared to hate it, but it was only the layout that was tripping me up – not the keys themselves. 
Sure, it is true the other keys suffer here – your fingers always feel like they’re rubbing against something on the periphery – but in contrast with HP41, I understand that this keyboard was made for much younger, and smaller hands. 
Either way, later version of the calculator abandoned this idea in favor of a more traditional arrangement, so this strange version feels truly unique.
But even the layout following this model is still alphabetic, and it touches upon a mystery I don’t fully understand yet. It seems that many schools allow devices with alphabetic keyboards, but not with QWERTY keyboards. Is this some sort of shorthand of QWERTY being often attached to more powerful and perhaps internet-capable calculators or even computers? Let me know if you know!
Keyboard №3
About a month ago, on a lark, I typed in “weird keyboards“ into Google. I got a bunch of sad listicles, and nothing surprising inside… with one exception. There was, apparently, a weird keyboard released about ten years ago that I have never heard of before, and didn’t have in my research library that is by now supposed to have everything.
The keyboard, called abKey Revolution, had scant presence on the web. I found only a few blurry photos of its strange shape, and a few suspicious-looking websites. It was not clear that it was actually ever released.
But the layout was strange enough and perhaps I was embarrassed I never heard of it… so I pulled on this thread.
I learned that the keyboard was designed in Singapore, so I reached out to a friend I had there. “What are the eBay equivalents in your country?” I asked, and I punched in the name in the few websites she listed.
I found just a few hits, and a lot of them seemed from many years ago. The chase didn’t seem promising. On top of that, all of the sites required an account to communicate – that made sense – but to make an account, one needed a phone number in Singapore.
This is where my friend stepped in. She created some accounts herself, and passed on my message. To my astonishment, despite posting over a year ago, one of the people still had the keyboard. A few days – and a lot of nail biting – later, my friend drove to meet him (Singapore is a small country) and received the keyboard. What followed was even more nail biting, as both of us agonized over packaging and shipping options to make sure it doesn’t get damaged.
I’m not going to keep you in suspense: Thanks to my friend, the abKey Revolution got to my apartment safe and sound. Here it is, in all its fascinating glory:
It’s a sort of a melange of different ideas – some wonderful, some bad. The halves can be split (cool!). Some keys are under thumbs (great!). The layout is mostly, but not quite alphabetical (weird!). Some of the navigation is moved to the left (inspiring!). Homing keys are in black (nice!) – but not all of them (why?). Some keys are circular (!?).
I don’t know much about it, still. But it actually works – as a matter of fact, I am clumsily typing on it right now – and it has production values and proper certifications of a regular (non-Ukraine) keyboard, rather than a prototype. 
And yet, what astonishes me mostly is that a month ago I had no idea it existed, and now – thanks to my friend – it is possibly the rarest artifact in my collection. 
On the other hand, it’s also ugly as hell. The asymmetry is grating, the color palette resembles a medical device, and many of its ideas seem annoyingly half-assed.
At least it has a uniquely shaped Enter key that, which – despite my assurances not that long ago – I’ll add to the relevant spread in the book.
At this point it’s probably clear that every time I say “the worst keyboard ever made,” I am being cheeky. These are not the worst keyboards ever made. There is no worst keyboard; the world of keyboards is just too complex for this to be possible.
Even more importantly, though, I believe there is always something you can learn from a keyboard you don’t like. Sure, the Ukrainian keyboard has an atrocious build quality, the TI calculator keypad is weird to press, and the abKey is far from a Revolution. 
But there are things in either of them that can surprise and delight. Just like I have a whole chapter dedicated to the Model M, I have another one in defense of one maligned keyboard that I think is actually wonderful (you’ll have to see what it is). And, I just searched this newsletter for the word “inspiring,” and it turns out I used it much more often that I suspected.
So you bet all three keyboards above will be in the book, because ugly and interesting is often better than beautiful but not.
Join me later this week – Saturday, July 17, 5pm GMT/10am West Coast for a very mellow first livestream where you’ll have a chance to see me typing on all these keyboards, and a few more!
Marcin
This was newsletter №25 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents
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