Monday, September 20, 2010

My "new" keyboard

My old keyboard, a 1984 Tulip, sadly died. The CTRL key had already broken off once, but I had managed to glue it back on. This time the damage was too much, though, and I had to get rid of it. Fortunately I had another keyboard, the Northgate Omnikey Ultra, in storage. This is a slightly more modern keyboard, from 1989, and is actually a step up from the Tulip. Some of the keyboard layout is a bit odd (I fixed most of it by reassigning scan codes, but there are still a few areas that I need to get used to) but the typing is amazing. I had used it before at work in Rochester, but there the people complained about the noise (it is loud) so I stopped using it. A keyboard like this makes you want to type. I looked on the Internet, and generally people seem to agree (Wikipedia calls it "the best in the industry". Other websites talk about "a legend in the computer industry", "personal favorite", "best keyboard", and the leader of PC World's column "the 30 products and services we miss most").

And PC World is right. The Tulip keyboard, the Northgate, and the IBM Model M keyboards are no longer available. The only way you can buy them is used, and given their lifespan of about 30 years, they will eventually only be seen in musea. Creative Vision Technology tried to make a keyboard like them in 2006, but it seems those aren't sold anymore either. What these keyboards have in common is that they use Alps Slider Switches, rather than a membrane. This means that they are more susceptible to liquids (if the liquid gets into the switch, your keyboard is basically dead) but also that anyone typing on them will notice that they are better. They aren't necessarily ergonomic (they can still cause carpal tunnel syndrome) but they just feel extremely good. And, just faster than sound flights, they are no longer commercially available.

The disappearance of these magnificent keyboards is most likely caused by the mouse. Because the mouse became more important in the interaction with the computer, the keyboard became less important, and people were no longer willing to spend $190 on a good keyboard. Instead, they bought a $5 keyboard and a slightly more expensive mouse. Which is fine for people that never used the old keyboards. But I will miss them. Let's hope my Northgate will last a long time, still.