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Apple Key

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When Apple presented their new flat keyboard last week, I noted a number of changes in the labeling of modifier keys. With a week having passed and people getting hold of these keyboards, it turns out that the actual labelling of the keys does vary and depend on the keyboard’s language as well.

One change that triggered a lot of hubbub was the loss of the Apple symbol on the command key, even though this is much less critical a change than removing the option key symbol from the option key as the Apple symbol isn’t actually used in the user interface. As long as the place of interest / propeller / cauliflower (I never really understood how people see a likeness here / ⌘ - symbol remains, keyboard equivalents for menu commands can be understood just fine.

But still, people became more nervous about a lack of Apple symbol than about the lack of option or shift key symbol which can make keyboard equivalents for menu items had to read. And many a blog post has been written about it. So many in fact that even the German yellow press seem to have jumped on the bandwagon and managed to extract a ‘no comment’ from Apple.

Once you start thinking about this issue, it’s really a bit tricky. As local habits do play a role. And seeing that the different language versions of Apple’s new keyboards do vary a bit in how the modifier keys are labelled suggests that people at Apple at least gave this a little thought. The main issue seems to be that there are at least two things associated to a modifier key. The name that people use when talking about the key and a symbol which is used to represent the key on screen, usually for keyboard equivalents. And there’s not much you can do to eliminate these two layers as having spelled out key names in your user interface will need a load of space and, I suspect, make it harder to grasp a keyboard equivalent at a glance. On the other hand, you need a speakable and typeable name for these keys.

With these two points in mind, you can judge the advantages and disadvantages of Apple’s new keyboard labelling. On their U.S. keyboards they seem to no longer have symbols on the shift and option keys. Bad for denoting keyboard equivalents in the user interface but possibly helpful for the telephone support situation. Assuming that novice users will not use keyboard equivalents anyway, this should make the situation easier for beginners. However, it will make learning keyboard equivalents harder.

For the command key, Apple decided to leave the place of interest symbol on the keycap but go with the word ‘command’ or the abbreviation ‘cmd’ instead. That probably makes quite a bit of sense because many people seem say things like and then do command-A command-C command-Tab command-V…. I.e. this labelling covers both the telephone help sessions and the learning of keyboard equivalents rather well. Just the people who say Apple-A Apple-C… will lose out. It’s not clear to me whether that’s a big deal. On the one hand the Apple symbol was easily recognisable (in fact pretty much the only easily described symbol on the modifier keys) and thus referencing it was great. On the other hand, using the term command seems to be quite natural to many people and give a smoother flow in how people speak.

For the option and shift keys, however, the lack of a symbol may make it harder for people. (And an interesting question is whether Apple’s software update for the new keyboard [which makes me choke because it’s friggin’ keyboard that should ‘just work’ without software updates] updated the Keyboard Viewer application to precisely match the labels on the keys of the new keyboard or whether it sticks with the symbols).

Looking at the German or British version of the new keyboard reveals a different picture: There still are symbols on the shift and option keys. I’m not quite sure about the rationale for this on the British version but one could argue that the word English ‘Shift’ on a German keyboard would be strange. However, going down that road would also mean that labelling the command key with ‘cmd’ is a bit strange. And labelling the control key with ctrl is consistent with Apple’s tradition but may be considered even stranger, particularly as non-Apple German keyboards tend to label that key ‘Strg’ (which is not short for ‘String’ but for ‘Steuerung, German for the noun control). Interestingly, the option key on the German keyboard didn’t gain an ‘opt’ label but just has the additional ‘alt’ label which I assume is for PC compatibility. As this label has been on Apple keyboards for a long time, that’s still a good thing as it is presents a quicker way of specifying the key on the phone than describing its odd symbol would be.

Finally the command key: It lost its Apple symbol in the German version as well and gained a label ‘cmd’. I think that is a bit unfortunate for two reasons. One of them being that nobody refers to the key as ‘command key’ in German. Apple translates this properly as ‘Befehlstaste’. And thus the key’s label doesn’t actually help people but will lead to silly descriptions of mysterious things like ‘the key with c-m-d and a strange propeller on it’. That doesn’t convince me. In addition, the vast majority of German Mac users I know do refer to keyboard commands in terms of Apfel-A, Apfel-C…. I assume that is because saying Befehl-A, Befehl-C… would sound somewhat strange or broken. In that sense, I think, the Apple symbol on the command key made somewhat more sense in the German version as it is referred to quite frequently.

Putting all these things together still leaves me puzzled. It seems that the key cap labels for the new keyboard were specifically done on a language-by-language basis. But the result of this seems neither particularly consistent nor taking into account all the idiosyncrasies of local usage. Which in the end does leave me wondering what exactly they were thinking.

August 15, 2007, 2:44

Tagged as hardware.


Comment by Dave2: User icon

I am looking at every Apple keyboard I can find, and I don’t see the “option” symbol on any of them. I don’t know when it was dropped here, but this is not a new thing (DID finally find it on my old Apple Performa condensed keyboard from the old OS-9 days). But you are right, since they use the symbol in the drop-down menus, it really should be on the keyboard so people know which modifier to press.

What I don’t get is your whining about having to download a keyboard update. You make it sound as if the keyboard is non-functional unless you do so, which is entirely not the case. The keyboard works perfectly fine without downloading anything. What the keyboard update does is activate the “special” keys that have been over-labeled on the function keys. This allows such brilliantly useful abilities as being able to pause, play, fast-forward, and re-wind iTunes WHILE IN ANY APPLICATION! I love this! And since this is entirely new functionality, OF COURSE an update is going to be needed! Before this, you had to either write an Applescript and tie it to a function key or use a third-party application… both of which are more work than a simple keyboard update from Apple. Do you honestly think these kinds of things should happen by magic? Or do you just like bitching about Apple so much that you’re even willing to gripe at them when they improve their products by adding useful features… just because you have to update your computer to use them? Give me a break.

I love reading your blog for your insightful observations… not just on Apple, but everything. Yet sometimes you leave me wondering exactly what YOU were thinking.

August 15, 2007, 14:45

Comment by ssp: User icon

Interesting note about the option key. That makes it look like Apple changed their US keyboards’ option key long ago. As I have never used an American keyboard, that never caught my attention. I really wonder why they made that change, even back then or whether just writing ‘option’ was perhaps the original design? (Google Image search suggests that even old American Extended II Keyboards use the text label. And Japanese keyboards seem to as well.)

I read a number of reports which made that keyboard update sound essential for using the new keyboard. That seemed silly to me, hence my remark. Obviously I got the wrong impression there.

A propos the iTunes buttons: I am split about this. Yes it’s a nice feature. For iTunes users anyway. I tend to be a bit sceptical about dedicated hardware features that are made for just a single piece of software, though. While both of us may like iTunes, I know people who don’t. And I hope for them those buttons won’t just be useless then but work with their music player. Which would in turn mean more complicated settings and so on…

In addition I hope that Apple implemented this well. Their other adjustment buttons on laptop keyboards leave a lot to be desired. For example when you haven’t changed volume for a long time, it seems that the code for muting the system has been swapped out or something and that the system’s reaction to me pressing the mute button is far from instantaneous (i.e. potentially embarrassing). As a consequence I’m not particularly convinced of the quality of Apple’s software on this. If there’s a hardware button I expect instant, hardware-style reactions.

August 15, 2007, 15:09

Comment by Dave2: User icon

But it’s not a hardware button. It’s a button on a peripheral, which means it has to be processed as a USB event like everything else. Even so, I agree that the lag time sucks. You’d think that these kinds of events would have a much higher priority. But when resource-monopolizing apps hog processes, I guess there’s not much that can be done.

Apple’s new keyboard update allows you to switch over the apple-mapped keys to be regular old function keys, so no big loss if you don’t want to use iTunes. I think you can even remap the specialized keys, but am not sure (don’t have a reason to check!).

August 16, 2007, 3:05

Comment by ssp: User icon

The label is printed on the keyboard hardware. And if that is done, I’d expect things to ‘just work’ even if my favourite music player isn’t iTunes or my machine is running Windows. Just as all the other buttons on the same keyboard will ‘just work’ as well.

I assume the switching between F-Keys and the special keys is just as it is for Apple’s laptop computers. Which may not be too useful as it may mean you’ll turn off the volume control as well if you don’t want iTunes keys. (That said, I still have a spare F8 key on my MacBook and I wouldn’t mind if it play/paused iTunes.)

As for the delay: Surely Apple can prioritise things, no matter what resources applications demand. I suppose that’s the beauty of preemptive multitasking (note how iTunes was rather skip free for a long time, no matter what you threw at the machine). Just doing that properly may require a bit of care. My impression for the delays is that they’re mostly due to swapping. Which often seems to be far-from-optimised on Mac OS X.

While there may be all sorts of ‘good technical reasons’ for it, I still fail to understand why a volume control or a menu should take a number of seconds to react on a ‘gigaflop supercomputer’ with gigabytes of memory. I’d prioritise things differently.

August 16, 2007, 15:00

Comment by ssp: User icon

Check out this series of Apple keyboard photos. It suggests that even ancient US Apple keyboard didn’t have the option symbol on them.

I also checked the US keyboard of my Mac SE, which doesn’t have the option symbol either. All the German Mac keyboards I had or saw (which presumably are all Mac keyboards since 1993) do have the symbol, though.

August 17, 2007, 21:25

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