The Cult of Keyboards

As I approach the end of my 40th year, my body is falling apart.  Okay, that may be an over-exaggeration, but every morning, it feels like another piece has been overextended or abused or mutilated, from the various discs in my back to the muscles and joints in my shoulders or arms or knees or toes or whatever.  Ever since I’ve started working from home, poor ergonomics has caused a rash of various repetitive stress injuries.  Or maybe all of the steps I’ve tried to prevent said injuries have caused it.  I don’t know.

I do know that my keyboards have been the main focus of this hell.  I mean, I also bought extensions to raise my desk, a different mount to raise my monitor, and one of those freaky bicycle seat-looking office chairs to prevent me from slouching, and that all helps.  But I think in the last decade, I’ve probably put down about a million words between work and fiction, and all of those go through my ten digits via some kind of USB-connected appliance that’s based on a design originally thrown down a hundred and a half years ago by opium-deranged business machine sadomasochists trying to find a way to keep busy women in between bouts of making sandwiches.  Never mind the fact that we don’t yet have machines that read our minds or let us simply talk to our computers like we’re Scotty whipping up a batch of god damned transparent aluminum. The fact that we still use essentially the same QWERTY design as a century ago, the one that was specifically invented to slow down typists, is a travesty to all things mechanical.

When I got to Seattle in the mid-90s, ergo-mania was happening, and I knew more people who had RSI or carpal tunnel than I knew in Indiana who thought the earth was created 3000 years ago, and that’s a lot.  Ergo was huge, and there were all of these bizarre startups running out of garages churning out short runs of chording keyboards and strange split devices and custom DVORAK layouts, not to mention all of the alternate mouse designs, like track balls and track pads and track pens and track cocks and whatever else.  And this was before the advent of USB, when this stuff became really easy to make, and before Microsoft upped the ante on RSI by inventing prolific right-click menus and then the scroll wheel, two things that have caused more arthritis of the right hand than all of the collected works of Megan Fox.

Microsoft both created and destroyed the ergo market by coming out with their own mass-produced split keyboard.  I will give credit where credit is due and say this is one product that Microsoft got mostly right.  I’ve gone through a succession of these split keyboards, most recently using the Ergo 4000, which has a large number of “media” buttons, which are nice for doing things like pausing iTunes or skipping tracks or zooming the browser window.  However, aside from the fact that I go though about one of these a year (mostly because of a combination of eating at my computer and the fact that the letters wear off almost instantly) there’s always been something slightly wrong with these peripherals.

Before the Microsoft models, I went through a series of IBM Model M keyboard clones; in fact, my first keyboard I bought in 1991 was an honest-to-god 83-key IBM keyboard from a 5-slot 5150 PC.  In 2012, there are a lot of issues with these keyboards, aside from just the total lack of ergonomic comfort; you’re not going to find a Windows key or an Apple key, and they use a cable that predates USB by at least two or three iterations.  Most of the vintage ones have also gone from the 90s computer beige to the yellow-brown color of linen in a ten-pack-a-day smoker’s house.

But the switches in these keyboards were magic.  New keyboards don’t use individual switches; they use dome switches, where the keys push this rubbery sheet that contains little bits that complete the electrical connection. The result is a quiet and cheap keyboard that feels like typing while your fingers are suspended in a bowl of mush, and at some point, the little domes will sporadically fail, and every 10,000th character you type will randomly miss, eventually causing insanity and the cost of both replacing the keyboard and the window you throw it through in a maddened rage.  The old keyboards used actual mechanical switches, each one happily clicking with a sharp tactile feel as you snapped away at the keys.  Even if you couldn’t type fast, it felt like you were typing fast.

This introduces this never-solvable paradox that seems to creep up in every damn aspect of my life.  I want an ergonomic split keyboard, that is modern and uses USB and has all of the new keys people use like Win and Alt, and has mechanical key switches.  The Microsoft ergo uses rubber dome switches, and at some point, those fail and cause madness.  It also means that even with a brand new keyboard, it feels like I’m typing underwater.  There’s a whole cult of mechanical switch keyboards, mostly from gamers who need lightning-fast key response.  Those are all standard layout, mostly because gamers only use the WASD keys.  There’s also the issue that these keyboards are all marketed to 14-year-old Asian boys, and have names like the “Viper Frag Kill 9000” and you will pay $200 for backlighting and extra buttons specifically used for Skyrim or whatever.  And outside of Microsoft, the ergo keyboard market has largely been killed.  Add to this the frustration that every single computer sold comes with a keyboard, and because the cheapest way of making them is good enough for a person who types at most 140 characters in a row, the $19 OEM POS is fine for almost everyone.

My problem with this – or with building a kitchen island, or finding the right desk, or getting a set of sliding glass doors done, or whatever the hell else, is I fall down these deep internet k-holes of endless searching and frustration.  There are several internet discussion boards full of game playing fiends touting their favorite boards.  But of course, if you posted asking for a good ergo keyboard, you’d get a thousand responses saying RSI is a myth, kind of like if you went into a random bar in Arkansas and asked the locals about global warming or evolution.  And your first 900 results in a google search are links to the Microsoft Ergo 4000.

This fall, I finally gave up and bought a Kinesis Advantage.  They are not cheap; I spent just shy of $300 for mine.  But they use actual Cherry mechanical switches, and feature a unique split system, where the bulk of the keys are in two “bowls”, and all of the modifier keys (ctrl/alt/win/apple) plus keys like the backspace, delete, enter, and space, all sit under your thumbs.  This means you can do 99% of your typing without stretching your hands out of the home position, and the keys happily clack away to confirm your speedy typing.  The Kinesis also has a complex and powerful system of keyboard remapping and macro programming in its firmware, which I will probably never use.   The one real bummer, aside from price, is that the function keys are these little rubber chicklets that will inevitably get jammed or stop working.  There’s also the issue that I am not historically a touch typist, and I had to spend a month using a touch typing tutor program (the wonderful and open-source Tipp1o) to get to the point where those ring and pinky fingers were hitting the As and Ses and Ls and ;s with regularity.

The k-hole has been reopened lately, though.  I’ve been wondering if there’s a good way to replace those damn chicklet keys.  Maybe I should get a keypad or jog-shuttle control to remap these keys.  Maybe I should get out the dremel and buy a dozen and a half loose Cherry keys and replace the switches.  Maybe I should remap the largely useless Home key so Home-1=F1;Home-2=F2, and so on.  Maybe I should stop all of this and actually write books.  Sure, right after I try to find a Kinesis macro programming FAQ online, and then hem and haw about buying a Griffin PowerMate.


The Death of Palm

In a serious WTF move yesterday, HP announced they were ditching their hardware manufacturing business, and abandoning their work on WebOS devices.  HP just bought Palm a little over a year ago for 1.2 billion dollars.  Their big splash was the iPad killer tablet, the HP TouchPad, which sold roughly as well as the Edsel in the year before its demise. It’s a sad end to Palm, and evidence that doubling down doesn’t always pay off.

I have a long history with Palm, mostly because I’ve always wanted some kind of little portable machine to store my “brain” of vital info and capture little bits of writing ideas as I’m away from my desk.  I remember first hearing about Palm back in 1996, when I was still at my first job in Seattle.  At that time, the gold standard of portables was the Apple Newton, which were nice, but cost somewhere around a grand.  US Robotics rolled out their new device for only $300 for the low-end model, and they were way smaller and lighter than the Newton.  When I first stumbled across this new product on the web, they had a little Palm Pilot simulator you could download, which let you walk through the various screens of the PDA, albeit without the touch-screen area for a pen stylus.  I was 90% sold on this initial model, but 10% of me had serious doubts.  (And 100% of me didn’t have $300 burning a hole in my pocket.)

The thing that was most offputting to me was that the Newton was essentially a shrunk-down computer. You could put cards in it and it had its own file system that you could fill with apps and documents and whatever else.  But PalmOS was based on this alien concept that you carried a mirror of your important data, a copy, that got synced when you plugged the device back into the mothership of your home PC.  It was a sort of parasite, like one of those little helicopters on the decks of huge yachts, and wasn’t a “real” computer.  I don’t know why that bothered me, but it was new at the time, and I didn’t like it.  (It’s the same stumbling block a lot of Windows people have about the iPad, and why you see tons of people in message boards yelling “IT DOESNT HAVE A PCMCIA SLOT!  I CANT RUN VISUAL STUDIO ON IT!  HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CUT BROADCAST-QUALITY HD VIDEO ON THAT THING?”)

So I didn’t get one. In the meantime, a bunch of people I worked with at my next job bought into a lot of bleeding-edge PDAs that have since left our collective consciousness.  Some of them were Newton or MessagePad die-hards, and a couple bought into the Magic Cap platform.  Windows CE devices also started appearing, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous at the time.  I spent my cash elsewhere, mostly on this other portable reading system better known as paper books, and patiently waited until Moore’s Law kicked in.

After I moved to New York, though, I foresaw a future of sitting on subway trains for a good chunk of my day. So I went down to J&R’s Music World, which is like the East-coast version of Fry’s electronics stores crowded with off-brands and flashy bright pricetags. I bought a Palm IIIx, which I think set me back $200 or so, and then figured out all of the cryptic mumbo-jumbo I needed to get it to talk to a linux machine.  (It probably involved recompiling the kernel five times.)

My use of the Palm fluctuated, and went through phases.  I’d go through periods when I downloaded a ton of ebooks, tried to keep a journal, and jotted down everything I saw or thought of, in hopes of eventually rolling it into my own writing.  I’d play dope wars forever (“you found two hits of acid on a dead dude in the subway!”) and remember reading that Bruce Sterling book The Hacker Crackdown and a good chunk of the Unabomber manifesto on that little 160×160 greenish LCD.  I never got the hang of writing in graffiti, the shorthand system of scratching on the little input area; I can barely print in Latin letters, let alone a system I haven’t been using for decades.

Everyone had a Palm back then.  When I worked at Juno, I think every single person on my team had a Palm III or V, except for one dude that had a Handspring Visor.  (I think one of the Directors also had the ultra-expensive Palm VII, which had an antenna hanging off of it, and could pull down the amount of web traffic you’d consume in about 60 seconds now over the course of a month, all for $14.95.) One of the project managers on my team found a hangman game you could play wirelessly over the IR ports, and our meeting productivity suddenly dropped 100%.  I’d get on the train and see dozens of people clicking with their little styluses on the charcoal or silver boxes, all of them drowning in crazy NASDAQ money as the tech bubble continued to expand like a huge zit on a teenager’s face.

I never fully sunk into the system, though.  Part of it was that it wasn’t 100% of what I needed to do with the damn thing.  I couldn’t really write on it; I couldn’t run totally kick-ass games with it.  There was no camera, no web browser, no way to send emails on the go.  I couldn’t write my own programs for it.  I could barely get the damn thing to sync with my PC, and would only plug it in maybe once or twice a month.  There was also the issue that I had a cell phone that could do about 23% of what I wanted, and this Palm that could do maybe 41%, and then I carried around a MiniDisc player, which totally solved the music issue, but only for the discs I remembered to shove in my pocket that morning.  I really needed some device that would do all of this and more, but that would be almost a decade away.  In the meantime, I assembled this mess of cables and adaptors to plug the Palm into the ass-end of this Samsung feature phone I had back then, so I could use the phone as a modem and dial in to a modem when I was on vacation, which almost worked.

Around 2001 or 2002, I took a half-step in that general direction, and upgraded to a Handspring Visor Prism, and got the Visorphone. The Visors had this cartridge port on them called the Springboard port, and the Visorphone was this sick attachment that  snapped on the back and essentially turned it into a cell phone.  And the Visor could use the phone for data, so you could fire it up and get SMS messages on your phone, or send out an email.  The Visorphone sounded like the coolest thing since the Boba Fett action figure with the shooting rocket pack that some stupid fucking kid shot down his throat and got the whole thing banned, but it was a total piece of shit.  It had its own battery in it, and you had to charge it separately from the main unit.  The software was barely integrated correctly, so it almost worked as well as one of those piece of shit Jitterbug phones.  And your monthly bill of 40 or 50 bucks came with just enough minutes to download and delete about four of your spam email messages.  Plus it got me locked into a T-Mobile contract, which was absolutely craptastic.  I did use the Prism for a while, and it was a nice step up from the IIIx, but I did miss the sleekness of the old Palm, the little fliptop case that reminded me of a Star Trek communicator, and the fact that it ran forever on AAA batteries.

I also owned Palm stock briefly.  I probably don’t need to explain how that went.

I sold the Handspring to a coworker, and jumped to a Sidekick, which, despite the fact that it was designed for emo 14-year-olds, had its shit together as far as data integration.  It was essentially useless as a phone, but I don’t like talking on the phone, and preferred getting the data-only unlimited plan and spending all day in AIM or browsing the web.  I did briefly consider getting a Treo when everyone else got Treo fever, but talked myself out of it.  Years later, when I was at the big S, we got a couple of Palm Pre units when they came out, and I spent twenty minutes screwing with one, long enough to lock it up two or three times.  I’d already moved to the iPhone by then, and it was the perfect solution I’d waited ten years for, so I was pretty nonplussed.  The WebOS UI had some nice features, but in a world where everyone had Ataris and Commodores, I didn’t want to buy a Coleco Adam because it had a neat keyboard.

I was thinking about all of this, and what happened to all of my old Palm files, and I remembered I used a program called jpilot on linux to sync my old devices.  It made a .jpilot directory, and it turns out I have two full backups of my old Palm’s filesystem, one from 2000 and another from 2001.  It is a total mindfuck to see what I carried on the thing back then.  I’ve got a list of DVDs I wanted to buy; a list of books to research later; and there’s an attempt at a journal that’s mostly a list sorted by date of when I was having panic attacks.  There’s an itinerary from a February 2000 trip to San Diego, and a copy of an early draft of my second book in PDB format.  I have all of the applications that were installed too, from a universal remote app to an R2D2 sound generator to some app that takes a Manhattan street address and tells you the cross streets.

Sometimes I wish I never kept things like this, because now I’m going to spend the next two hours digging through these files.


I’d hate to be a piece of furniture in Steve Ballmer’s office this week

The Mac App Store launched Thursday, and Herman Miller stock went up two points in anticipation of all of the chairs Steve Ballmer has probably been throwing at people this week.  There’s no way the sweaty-pitted Microsoft CEO isn’t beating his middle managers like red-headed step-children after the news came out that people downloaded a million apps in the first day, with 10,000 apps available at launch.  The Mac App Store changes things in ways that people in Windowsland cannot even contemplate, although when Win7SP2 launches with the MSFT half-ass attempt of the same concept, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the greatness, just like we’ll hear about how great judicial advocacy is from Teapotters that have railed against it for the last two years when they need it to keep Guantanamo bay open.

The Mac App Store changes things in a big way, both good and bad.  Back when I got started in this industry, if you wanted to write and sell an application for a Mac (or a PC), you rode your dinosaur to work, hired a bunch of people to put your crap on floppy disks and into boxes, and then either sold it yourself in your local computer stores (kids younger than 20: imagine a Best Buy with only a computer section, that didn’t suck), or you got your retail boxes dumped into the channel and flushed out to big stores and catalogs.  (Catalog: a paper version of Amazon, but it took 4-6 weeks to get your stuff.)  Then the internet happened, and people sold software on web sites, where you somehow sent money and either got a download or got a CD-ROM sent to you through the pony express for later installation at your own leisure.

But if you had this great software package, you had this huge list of problems.  Gotta set up a web site.  Gotta get a shopping cart system in place.  Gotta take credit cards and get a merchant account and whatever SSL nonsense your ISP wants you to get.  Or, gotta bend over and spread for PalPal’s cut of the vig.  Gotta find a way to have a download center that isn’t just at so the first person that buys your crap doesn’t just spam the magic link to the world and let everyone download.  Gotta come up with come crazy system of software enablement, serial numbers you type in and send securely, whatever obfuscated nonsense you need to keep the world from just emailing your ZIP file to all of their friends.  Gotta find a way to drive traffic to the site.  Gotta find a way to get people to return to the site for upgrades and new versions.  There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to consider, and either every software reseller reinvents the wheel, or you join some tribe or cabal or commune or collective or whatever else to use one common set of machinery for everyone’s releases, and you pay for the privilege.

So now you avoid all of that.  Pay Apple a hundred bucks to join, upload your DMG file, and you’re in a searchable, centralized catalog of apps.  When a new Apple user fires up their iMac for the first time, there’s a pretty little icon to click that brings them to a huge store filled with games and productivity apps and stuff people can click on without scrambling for their credit cards or signing up for yet another e-merchant account that will probably eventually get hacked, with your password and Visa number and home phone ending up in a torrent sent out to every script kiddie in the world.

There’s also the issue of central maintenance.  When you have to push out a patch, you don’t spam out emails, and you don’t have to write complicated code to beam back to the mothership and check if the latest version is installed on the user’s PC. You tell Apple you have a new version, and let them do the dirty work.  And when a person bricks their MacBook or spills juice in their iMac and has to go get a new machine, they just plug in their username and all of their apps magically download again.  There isn’t a two-month process of trying to remember all of the crap you installed, or a weekend-long backup and reload on an external drive or a pile of DVD-Rs.

Yeah, there are downsides.  You’re paying Apple that hundred bucks, and they’re also skimming 30% of the take on your sales.  But do you know how much banks take from mom and pop companies on merchant accounts?  I’d tell you, but there are like 79 different surcharges and monthly fees and address verification fees and machine rental fees and every other nickel-and-diming the banks can think of to hit you with.  That 30% erases a lot of headaches.  And compare it to how much of a discount you’d give in channel sales, and it’s not a bad deal.

There are all of the “walled garden” arguments you’ll hear from the Microsoft camp.  You’ve heard the same arguments since the App Store showed up on the iPhone, although you haven’t heard as many of them since Windows Phone 7 adopted the same exact strategy for their app store.  And you probably won’t hear much more about it after that Windows 7 Platinum Home Deluxe SP2 Zune Marketplace shows up in the next rev of their OS, providing the same exact walled garden, albeit with a lot of the wall’s pieces removed to appease any of the big software makers that balk.

I think by the fall, everyone at every point of the food chain is going to try to launch their PC app store.  Amazon’s probably brewing one; I’m sure all of the hardware manufacturers like HP and Dell are going to have a long, painful meeting this Monday where some idiot who has never installed software in his life but can wear a mean tie and gets all of the ZDNet headlines beamed to his Blackberry is going to pitch their genius idea to launch their own bundled crapware app store on their new computers.   App stores will be the add-on toolbar of 2011, just like they were for phones in the last 18 months.

Another argument that is a plus and a minus is what the hell this will do to pricing.  People are now used to paying 99 cents for a game on their phone, so good luck on putting your desktop game on the App Store for $79.99.  Sure, you can trim down that price a bit because you’re not paying $47 a copy in merchant account fees to Bank of America.  And your game is some one-gig DVD release and not just a two-screen screen-tapper you wrote in a weekend.  It’s going to cause unbundling of suites, like Apple is doing with iWork and iLife, where people will only buy the apps they want, at a lower price and a smaller download, instead of buying a full package of apps on a DVD.  I don’t know what the magic price point will become, although I’m guessing people will be less apt to buy a $99 app and more willing to pay something like $19 for Real Apps and $4.99 for games and entertainment.

I just got the update and installed the App Store, and gave it a quick drive to download the new Twitter client.  No problems, no surprises.  I haven’t bought anything yet, but when I get a free second (which will be in like June) I will probably hunt down the latest versions of some of the older registered payware/shareware I have, just to make the next update easier.  All I can tell you now is, I’m glad I’m not working at a hardware manufacturer that’s probably going to go on damage control and require all of its R&D center employees to waste a lot of their free time generating stupid powerpoints re-selling an already done idea.  Also glad I’m not driving across the 520 bridge every morning to potentially have a 57-pound Aeron chair thrown at my head.


Requiem for an iPhone

Well, my must-last-two-years-according-to-AT&T iPhone 3G just crossed the magical Apple rainbow at nine months.  It was working fine, but it started developing a crack in the back case, just above the dock connector.  It probably could have lasted another year, but I figured I would make the trek to the Apple Store and see if they would swap it for a new one, even if I didn’t have AppleCare, and they did.

First, if we’re in a recession, it sure didn’t look like it in the Bay Street Apple store.  They were wall-to-wall with people grabbing Apple gear for the holidays.  I’m curious what their actual numbers are for sales in the holiday season, and also curious if these new Microsoft stores are doing anything comparable.  Anyway, I made an appointment for the genius bar, and managed to get in at exactly the specified time.  And the swap was no hassle.  Thanks to the whole iTunes-centric backup recovery paradigm and the fact that I backed up right before leaving, the whole thing went almost seamlessly.  (Only exceptions: my WiFi and voicemail passwords vanished and had to be re-entered when I got home.)  I also sprung for AppleCare, just in case, and a new screen protector, which they installed for me.  (It’s pretty much impossible to put on an adhesive screen protector in a home with a long-haired cat, unless you don’t mind staring at a few stray cat hairs on your touchscreen for the rest of the protector’s life.)

What’s weird is that while the Apple genius boxed up my old phone and got ready to pitch it off to whatever Chinese landfill/salvage dumping ground old iPhones go to at the end of their lives, I felt slightly emotional about seeing it go.  Granted, I got an exact clone of the old model, and it even looks identical because it’s in the same old case, but I still felt slightly sentimental about seeing it go.  I think part of that is because this is one of the first cell phones that wasn’t just a vague utensil I occasionally used to make calls, but an actual fully-fledged computer that I used for a wide swath of applications within my somewhat-connected life.  I mean, I really used the camera; I listened to pretty much every Rockies game I could this season, and when I couldn’t listen, I followed along in the MLB app; I sent and read many an email; I used it as a real web browser, not a postage stamp approximation of a web browser; I found myself texting a lot more than I typically would; I even wrote a few blog posts on it.

I guess there’s always been this lack of a suspension of disbelief in my use of a palm-sized computer, either because it didn’t do what I wanted, or it had such clunkiness in what it did do.  Like, I used to have a couple of Palm OS non-phone devices, and while those were decent phone books and occasional game machines (mostly Dopewars), there was a big line to be drawn with all things connected, because there was no way for me to surf the web or read emails on those things.  Yes, you could attach on some giant pack the size of the actual device and sort of use it as a crappy cell phone, and maybe run an email program that barely worked, but there was a pretty hard stopping point in the usefulness of these machines, and it was clear that I would also need to carry a cell phone and a laptop to be semi-functional in the field with these.

I guess now we’re truly reaching this age where we can have a palm-sized computer that can really run apps and really do things and because of that, I feel the same kind of emotional (and somewhat stupid) bond I feel toward some of the primary computers I have in my life.  I mean, when I finally kicked to the curb my entirely obsolete PC that was my primary writing machine from 1991-2001,  I felt a bit of remorse to see that beige rectangle go to the garbage, even if it was fully useless even as a doorstop by the time it went in 2005.  There were many good memories of that thing sitting on my desktop as I chipped away at various books.  And I felt the same kind of nostalgia as that tiny black piece of plastic and glass (which probably had more CPU and memory than said PC) got sent back to the void.

And a side note, iPhone wise – I was tapping away while standing in line at Taco Bell, and curiously got a WiFi connection and didn’t know why.  Then I realized I was standing next to a Starbucks, which has an AT&T hotspot, and at some point I logged in at a different Starbucks, and the new magical AT&T hotspot connector mojo worked without interaction.  That sure beats the old days of having to enter a thousand characters of login info, including a password you can never use or remember.