DEATH TO caps lock: the new frontline in online manners

For its ability to turn a simple e-mail into a shrieked command, this single key has become the subject of a fierce online campaign. Rhodri Marsden reports

It seems an unlikely target for vitriol, but the "caps lock" key has caused a brouhaha in the online community. It started a week ago, when a Brussels-based programmer named Pieter Hintjens pondered the drawbacks of the seemingly innocuous button, and decided to launch a blog (capsoff.blogspot.com) and a website (capsoff.org) to kick-start a movement that might persuade manufacturers to banish the superfluous plastic lump forthwith.

The case against the key hinges on the tendency for caps lock to cause unnecessary friction. Its unintended engagement can, for instance, inflame already-fragile office relationships, turning simple e-mailed requests into salvos of exasperated impatience, as in: "WOULD YOU PLEASE SEND ME THE PROVISIONAL BUDGET."

The same applies to blogging, as those unfamiliar with "netiquette" unwittingly take to "shouting" their messages. But caps lock causes other problems. Engaged by accident, it can lead us to type line upon line of upper-case text without noticing, or incorrectly enter case-sensitive passwords. Most significantly, Hintjens feels that its prominence on the keyboard is totally out of proportion to its value.

The response from the online community has been immediate and overwhelming. "I always rip caps lock off all my keyboards," comments one user, leading Hintjens to ponder: "Maybe it's time to encourage people to remove their caps lock keys and send them to us. How many would we collect? Would anyone care?" Some clearly would; those resistant to change began firing off expletives at Hintjens to show their devotion to the generic Qwerty lay-out - including programmers who need it to tap out upper-case code. But Hintjens is unrepentant. "Caps lock is like a small pebble in your shoe... it's so annoying that there's a whole sub-industry in software programs to remap the thing [assign a different function to it]."

As the discussion went on, it became clear that the majority agreed with him, and were brimming with ideas for revamping a keyboard layout that is nearly 130 years old, and inherited from the typewriter.

Christopher Sholes, creator of the Qwerty keyboard, might be considered lucky that his invention became a cultural standard; many have pointed out its weaknesses, but its employment on the first typewriter and all subsequent models assured its ubiquity. It was designed to keep frequently used pairs of letters apart so the typebars wouldn't collide and stick together. Challenges to its dominance by such layouts as the Dvorak have fallen by the wayside. Generations of keyboard users have been perfectly happy with their sedate word-per-minute rates, lazily tapped out by three or four fingers, and were happy to let the Qwerty keyboard continue into the modern era. The shift key, which on typewriters caused the entire carriage to jolt with an alarming thud, and the shift-lock key, which wedged it in position, were both retained by IBM's first computer keyboards, because they needed a "supershift" option to enter upper-case letters into mainframe applications. No one thought to question its pride of place on the "home row" of the keyboard. Until now.

Hintjens has shown a willingness to compromise; he's happy to have caps lock moved, rather than obliterated altogether, and perhaps replaced with a key that's more commonly used these days, such as a volume control or a button to eject CDs - or any of the other controls that are appearing on the latest extended multimedia keyboards, which are steadily getting bigger to accommodate all the required keys.

Such is the standard of internet debate, however, that his suggestion was met with cries of "hypocritical jackass" by his critics. One can only imagine the fury that might be unleashed if Hintjens dared to criticise some of them for that other irritating habit: failing to use any capital letters whatsoever.

The best of the new keyboard generation

By David Phelan

Logitech diNovo media desktop laser, £120

The number pad of this cordless flat keyboard can be used as a calculator when the computer is off. An LCD screen tells you who's sent an e-mail, and it can be used to control music playback, too.

01753 870 900; www.logitech.co.uk

Microsoft wireless laser desktop 6000, £49.99

Has Media Centre keys for playing music, a zoom slider and keys that connect you to common photo tools.

08706 010 100; www.microsoft.com

Logitech cordless desktop S530 Mac, £59.99

A keyboard for the Mac with the @ and " where you find them on PC keyboards. Extra keys include buttons for iPhoto and iTunes. Other keys brighten or dim your screen, and eject DVDs.

01753 870 900; www.logitech.co.uk

Zboard Merc gaming keyboard, £29.99

One for gamers: dedicated keys are labelled Crouch, Walk and so on, plus "weapon" keys and direction buttons are together on a large gamepad. www.amazon.co.uk

Half keyboard, £295

Type with one hand, so the other is free to move the mouse. You'll have to practise to get up to speed - you get the missing letters by holding down the space bar - but converts claim they can type at up to 88 per cent of their usual typing speed.

www.keytools-ergonomics.co.uk

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