Even if you don't remember the staccato "thwack" of type bars as they pounded letters and numbers into paper, you're still dealing with the typewriter's most important and unfortunate legacy: the computer keyboard. It also qualifies as one of the worst inventions of its time.
In 1871, when the first semblance of a modern typewriter appeared (manufactured by the Remington gun company), it had one flaw: Levers from adjacent keys had a tendency to jam together. The solution was to rearrange the letters so that those commonly used together were pushed as far away from each other as possible, effectively making typists slower but, at the same time, reducing the likelihood of two adjacent keys being used together. Such was the inglorious birth of QWERTY.
About 60 years after QWERTY, a redesign called the Dvorak layout -- named after one of the inventors, not the layout -- was attempted. This layout puts consonants on one side of the keyboard and vowels on the other. Their positions were optimized for English, so you alternate hands as you type. Dvorak users have claimed speeds in excess of 170 words per minute, but a thousand typing teachers and probably 100,000 existing QWERTY keyboards have done a good job of keeping it under wraps.
But wait, there's more! Lots more.
At some point in the mid to late '80s, we all learned a new word -- ergonomics. It's the technique -- many say science -- of making the equipment fit the worker rather than the other way around. After a flurry of media attention, it caught on briefly with the production of some of the oddest-looking chairs and desks, monitor stands, keyboards, and mice ever built. While much of the hoopla has worn off, computing still sees its share of ergonomic devices.
Courtesy of Microsoft. (click image to enlarge)
The Dvorak keyboard was one of the first ergonomic keyboards. Most famous, however, could well be the Microsoft Natural Keyboard. Gone was the rectangle, replaced by a somewhat wavy, somewhat amorphous shape that retained the QWERTY layout but split the block of keys down the middle and set them at an angle to each other. With the back tilted up and a pad or ledge for your wrist, this new key attack angle was meant to reduce repetitive stress problems.
Ergomatic Keyboard. Courtesy of Ergo-Comp Systems. (click image to enlarge)
Others soon jumped on the "natural" bandwagon and, over the years, the plain old natural keyboard has evolved into "Pro," "Elite," and other jazzy versions that add functionality as well as slightly modified designs. Is it a winner? To a limited degree. The "natural" is decidedly unnatural for hunt-and-peck typists; the key split takes a bit of getting used to; and all the extra functionality plumbed into them as they evolved is often distracting. Notably, many natural-style keyboard makers, including Microsoft, also offer several standard models as well.
Courtesy of Evoluent. (click image to enlarge)
Vertical mice like Evoluent's fared a bit better. These rodents-come-lately look like hump-backed versions of their somewhat flatter brethren. The idea here is to return your hand and forearm to a vertical position, like a handshake, rather than the twisted, flat posture needed to use a standard horizontally oriented mouse. To that end, the mouse buttons are typically placed on one side, so your fingers fall naturally over them. Some vertical mice are even designed in a contoured, half-cup shape to hold your hand in the correct position for you. As with anything different, you'll need to retrain your reflexes a little.
Courtesy of SafeType. (click image to enlarge)
There are even vertical keyboards such as the SafeType Ergonomic Keyboard that take the natural layout, put the keypad in the middle, fold the sides up, and put the typing keys on the outside of the fold. As with the vertical mice, the logic here is to keep your hands in a natural "handshake" position. As natural keyboards in general are easiest to learn by touch-typists, vertical keyboards might be best friends with touch-typists who've mastered natural keyboards.
Orbit Optical Trackball. Courtesy of Kensington. (click image to enlarge)
If you find yourself slamming your mouse against things while you're trying to navigate your desktop, it's probably time for a trackball. Borrowed from electronic video games, they've become ergonomic easements in their own right. Desktop trackballs have grown to near vertical mouse proportions with the ball no longer underneath the device but now transplanted toward the top, where your thumb would rest, and the buttons placed to one side under your finger tips. Forget mechanical. As with mice, trackballs are optical now.
Fear not that you'll be tethered to your computer with any of these alternatives. They are, more often that not, available in remote infrared or Bluetooth versions. Bluetooth is preferable, since infrared requires a general "line of sight" orientation between the transmitter and receiver.
So you have a cell phone or PDA and are experiencing alternate keyboard envy at this point? No need. Back when the PalmPilot officially kicked off the Handheld Era, it wasn't long before the arrival of the fold-up, low-profile keyboard. Connecting the two was a bit of a pain, but at least you could stop tapping for a while.
Stowaway Bluetooth. Courtesy of Think Outside. (click image to enlarge)
Things have gotten better since then. Although there are infrared possibilities like Belkin's Wireless PDA Keyboard, the push for PDA and cell keyboards has been in the Bluetooth arena. Think Outside's Stowaway is among a growing number of Bluetooth-enabled foldable keyboards. They support both Palm and Pocket PC operating systems as well as Symbian-based smart phones. The trick with these devices is to try them first. Keystroke action, size, and spacing does vary, and if you see the word "universal," keep in mind that it doesn't apply to your fingers.
Voice recognition is on tap for PDAs, but add the word "reliable" and factor in background interference from a world filled with noise, and you might understand why it's been on the drawing board for years and still has at least a few to go.
Overall, however, accessorizing PDAs and cell phones runs into a simple problem: The devices are so self-contained, and so portable, that carrying around add-ons makes you feel like your little cell phone is back in the age of the brick.
Gaming Gone Wild
Courtesy of Saitek. (click image to enlarge)
Gamers have it made. They've moved from the mouse, to the trackball, to the joystick, to the steering wheel, to the foot pedal -- and now there's even more. At the low end -- not to indicate that isn't a superlative control -- there are throttle and stick combinations like Saitek's X52 Flight Stick.
Courtesy of Belkin. (click image to enlarge)
Somewhat more conventional, with emphasis on the "somewhat," is Belkin's Nostromo SpeedPad n52. You can program up to 104 functions into the keys, and there's a game controller and command buttons on the side for easy thumb reach.
Courtesy of Monstergecko. (click image to enlarge)
Courtesy of Ferraro Design. (click image to enlarge)
More outrageous is Ferraro Design's Claw. It has ten buttons molded into a pad that looks like a bear's paw. It's programmable and will autoselect the correct button assignments you've previously programmed as you change games.
Courtesy of Saitek. (click image to enlarge)
If you don't want people to realize you're playing games, Saitek has you covered with its Gamer's Keyboard and Pad. It almost looks conventional, and the blue backlighting of the keys is only really noticeable in dim lighting.
The Weird And The Wonderful
Some input devices aren't easily categorized -- like the touch screen. IBM tried to introduce a touch-screen system about two decades ago. It was a clunky and unreliable. Sometimes you got what you touched, sometimes you didn't, and sometimes you had to reboot the system. Hardly ready for prime time. Today they're much more accurate and much better protected against moisture, dust, and the general grime and oil that collects on our fingertips.
Touch-screens also don't need to be complete monitors. There are touch-screen overlays available for existing displays and notebooks. Of course, you'll still need mouse-driven application software to interpret the screen touching. (In case you hadn't noticed, your PDA uses a touch screen, as do many smart phones.)
Courtesy of EyeTech. (click image to enlarge)
EyeTech Digital Systems offers a mouse replacement system called Quick Glance 2 that uses eye motion to position the cursor and either a switch, a wink, or a stare to simulate a mouse-click. Used in conjunction with an application such as Lake Software's Click-N-Type Virtual Keyboard, you can also produce text. Although Quick Glance was designed to help people with disabilities, it can be used in any environment where your hands are tied up but you also need to select or point on-screen. (Think of it as tapping on a PDA, but with a little bit more attention required.)
(click image to enlarge)
If you've ever tried to balance a keyboard on one arm while typing with the other hand because you needed direct access to a rack-mount system, Jameco has a rack-mounted drawer, keyboard, and trackball just for you. At 18 pounds, it better be rack-mounted.
Courtesy of Ergodex. (click image to enlarge)
Not quite sure what you want to do with your keyboard? Programmables are available, but Ergodex's DX-1 Input System puts them all to shame. Not only are the keys programmable, but you can pick the keys up off the tablet and move them into any configuration you want.
Courtesy of Wacom. (click image to enlarge)
Keeping to the tablet theme, there's the Wacom Graphire. Technically, it's not a data entry tool so much as a freehand entry device meant to unleash the artist in you. It works with any software that responds to a mouse. And it's Bluetooth-enabled, too.
Then there's the 3D Mouse from Virtual Realities, aimed at designers who build and manipulate three-dimensional models. The system has a tabletop transmitter, a control box, and a "mouse." The transmitter emits three distinct ultrasonic signals that are picked up by three receivers in the mouse, and the control box interpolates the position of the mouse dependent on the response timings of these signals. Of course, at close to $1900, you may end up just waving your hands in the air.
Courtesy of Metadot Corporation. (click image to enlarge)
Finally, if you're looking to make a statement, there's always Das Keyboard. It has totally blank keycaps -- no inscription on the keys whatsoever -- and is marketed to the really confident ÜberGeek.
On the horizon, IBM is toying with a pen-based keyboard using a system called SHARK (Shorthand-Aided Rapid Keyboarding ). Instead of tapping individual key representations, you start with the first letter of the word you want to type and then glide the stylus to the next letter in that word, and so on, and so on, until you're done. Software interprets the end result.
Still Haven't Found What You're Looking For?
Don't worry, there's more on the way. It's the nature of innovation to be boundless.
Bill O'Brien can be blamed for more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology topics. With his writing partner, Alice Hill, Bill co-authored "The Hard Edge," the longest-running (1992 to 2004) technology column penned by a techno duo. For more, go to technudge.com.