Monday, September 04, 2006

The War on Caps Lock goes Ballistic

When I started the CAPSoff campaign a few weeks back, the reactions were... heated. Amazing how many people felt strongly - both ways - about a small bit of plastic. Well, now we're ready for the next step. Linus McCabe, founder of anticAPSLOCK, and myself are launching the Million Dollar Keyboard competition. The goal is simple: to raise a million bucks and give it to the person who designs the best new keyboard layout to replace the old ISO9995 standard. Deadline is 24 December, and we still have $999,758.29 to raise.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Week Three in the CAPSoff Campaign

I started the CAPSoff campaign with nothing more than a blog, a Google group, a story, and half an hour to waste. In two weeks we hit every major geek news site, then the blogs, then the radio stations and the printed media. As the story spread, people looked at their keyboards and thought, "yes, time for a change!"

And the ideas kept pouring in. Two enter keys, like pinball flippers. A Control key. A second backspace. A mute button. A boss key. A key to eject the CD-ROM drive. The infamous missing 'Any' key.

And people pointed out other problems. The Ins key. All the other legacy keys. The cry "what is this key actually for?" went around the world as people looked at their SysRq, PrtSc, NumLock, Scoll Lock, Ins keys with a new scepticism.

And people said, "actually, when you think about it, the whole keyboard is ripe for change".

It's not just the English qwerty keyboard. The world's keyboards are bizarre hybrids, stuffing accented characters into odd places and filling valuable spaces with characters no-one ever uses. Tiny countries like Luxembourg and Belgium use three totally different layouts, even though many people have to use the same layout to work in multiple languages. IBM have a nice site that shows the national and regional layouts we use around the world.

Some people like their regional keyboards, it makes them feel special. "Well, we didn't get a seat at the UN Security Council", they can tell their chief minister, "but at least we got our own keyboard". But do we really need fourty-four different keyboard layouts in Europe, for instance? None of these keyboards are really that great. They are all based on a design that IBM admits "was selected to slow down typists in the days of mechanical typewriters."

Now, keyboards are defined by the ISO9995 standard, an international standard that covers most conventional keyboard layouts across the world. The Caps Lock position is part of the ISO9995 standard. The computer industry blindly implements standards, good or bad. So to kill Caps Lock, we need to make a new keyboard standard.

Changing an international standard is impossible for ordinary people like you and me. You don't like the Caps Lock key? Don't like the way Del (often used) and Ins (another 'do not touch' key) are right next to each other? Don't like that correcting a mistake is slower than it should be? Find that your wrists hurt when you type too much? Well, tough cookies, you're just a consumer, and all you're allowed to do is spend your money. Here, try yet one more expensive ergonomic keyboard that blindly follows the outdated ISO9995 standard!

Well, we're not just consumers, if we work together. Individually, we can't do more than complain, rip that key out, or buy a non-standard alternative. Collectively, we can move mountains, and we can certainly change the keyboard standard. It's just a matter of pressure, noise, and publicity.

The CAPSoff campaign has already changed the world, as millions of people have opened their eyes and said, "yes, yes, I always knew it was broken!" I said, we'd change the world, one key at a time.

Well, now it's time for the next shake-up. So, in the next days I'll be launching the next phase in the war on Caps Lock: the Million Dollar Keyboard. Stay tuned, and stop shouting!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Week 2 in the CAPSoff Campaign has several banners, made by Guss77, based on paulgb's elegant CAPSoff logo.

The "What shall we do with the Caps Lock key" debate has raised many interesting suggestions, some of them polite enough to reprint here.

Mike h proposes a software solution:
Well the CapsLock as any other key on the keyboard can be remapped - as a temporary workaround until we get a solution.

Remapping is a popular fix but it does not work on all operating systems (I'm using a Dana with PalmOS that has no remapping functionality). And you have to go and remap every keyboard, every PC you work with. Yes, I've done this for years, but it seems wrong to have to continue 'fixing' our keyboards like this.

kimlik66 says:
yes i tried Dvorak and it's certainly better. However, i think the need
for a radically designed and much better keyboard is still out there :-)

A new keyboard design is an appealing idea, because the keyboard design for many non-English languages is pitiful. Maybe it's possible to design a keyboard that solves more than one legacy problem. Time for the
New Keyboard? Or should we try to fix one problem at a time?

Jonas points out that:
One new keyboard could be placed on the market once, a "key by key" roadmap with a new key removed/replaced will not be accepted by customers who had to buy a new keyboard every few years. What about a simple LED within the key for the beginning? I think about a kind of modular keyboard layout with extra space for language related characters and programmable keys.

Which is very sensible. The current mishmash of European language keyboards is a serious problem, since in every different language, letters and punctuation jump around randomly. Can we really solve this? Jonas, make us a proposal, if you like. Personally I'd love to see a single keyboard for all Latin alphabets, with clear access to accented characters. Why does my qwerty keyboard not let me type Spanish or Dutch? It should be possible to create a single European keyboard. Maybe the EU Commission would sponsor a study to create a single European Keyboard, since the different keyboard layouts are a barrier to internal movement of labour?

juve has a simpler and surprisingly popular solution:
I always rip it out of my keyboard.

It certainly makes a statement. I can't encourage the vandalism of public equipment - e.g. in libraries - but maybe it's time to start a "Rip it out!" campaign where people can remove their Caps Lock keys and send them to us. How many could we collect? Would anyone care?

huempu suggest:
A good idea would be to remove the lock on caps lock. The CAPS-lock key could be turned into an alternative shift.

Which would make three shifts. r03 had the idea of a second Enter key, which is intriguing. Typing would become a little like playing pinball. And two Enter keys would certainly be nicer for left-handers.

But Sudden Disruption speaks for many people when he says that:
I've been key swapping Capslock with Control ever since IBM screwed up the placement and I'd REALLY miss having a Control key there.. Actually, I move Capslock to F12 and keep two Control keys. But the one that gets all the use is where Capslock used to be.

Which I guess was what I wanted when is started CAPSoff. But Jonas and many like him have pointed out that the keyboard is really broken in other ways too. That's the problem with a grass-roots campaign - you never know where it's going to take you. Anyhow, so long as Caps Lock disappears from its current location, I'll be happy.

Steve puts it all together:
The caps-lock key is just a convenience for an inconvenient problem from the past.

Sure, everyone hates change, but without change we'd all still be living in caves and hunting mammoths with big sticks. When Apple stopped delivering computers with floppy drives people said they couldn't cope. Instead, those people discovered networks, email and USB sticks for moving data around. Now, no-one even considers the loss. The removal of the caps lock should be similar. If you really really REALLY can't cope, you'll still be able to get an "old-style" keyboard on the open market. Meanwhile, the masses will have moved on to the next step of keyboard evolution.

Exactly. Time for change. And it's up to us to make it happen.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Day 3 in the CAPSoff Campaign

Today we launched our web site - It's a wiki site, which means we'll build it as we go along. The beautiful logo was made yesterday by paulgb. If you also want to join, register at and join the CAPSoff site. As we say in Scots (mae mums's Sco'ish, 'lo mum!), "mony a mickle maks a muckle", which roughly translates to "wikis are fun because everyone lends a hand."

CAPSoff got a lot of press, most of it curious. Heise, a German daily, explained that "Caps Lock werde ohnehin nur von Scammern und Fortran-Programmierern benutzt", which gives me an idea for the propaganda war that will have to be part of this campaign. "Caps Lock is for scammers and Fortran programmers! Are you a scammer? Are you a Fortran programmer? No? Well, prove it and join CAPSoff now!" At least one Nigerian complained that other countries also had decent sized 419 industries. It so happens I spent a lot of time in Nigeria, and it's one of my favourite countries. I didn't get out much past Lagos, the capital, a great place where I had many friends - chaotic, noisy, full of strange and interesting people. Much like the CAPSoff group, I guess.

CAPSoff got discussed on many, many blog comments. There seem to be several opinions.

First, some people think this campaign is petty (the word comes from the French 'petit', meaning small) and a waste of time (the word comes from the herb 'thyme' and means something good to put on pizza). For example, brwyatt asks (on the CAPSoff group):

Speaking about "polution" why couldn't you fight that instead? Global warming, suffocation? I think that is a much more important issue that the existance of a key that some people use and some people don't....

To be honest, I fight suffocation regularly, by holding to a steady breathing pattern. Done this all my life, and it works wonders. Pollution? Well, I walk to work, and ride a bike, and only drive when it's raining or I have to go far. But this is not about me; this is not some one-man crusade against sanity (as Monty Python might say). This is about taking control over the keyboard, our main doorway to the online world. This is about fixing a problem - however small - that has been there since IBM decided we needed a super-shift key so that people could easily enter uppercase into their mainframe apps.

Besides... life is full of battles, big ones and small ones. I'm involved in many noble causes. I've got karma to burn. If CAPSoff really smells like a small ten-topping pizza with extra cheese, well, I don't see that as a bad thing.

Next, there is a definite "don't touch our farkin' caps lock" tendency from the gaming community. Eggeneon says,

Counterstrike - One of, if not THE most played online-game ever. People who play this game have to (like 100's of millions) communicate. Everybody, and I mean everybody, use Ventrilo, a team-speak-program. ( To speak in your mic you must push the caps lock button! It's VITAL FOR MILLIONS! If caps lock was gone, then gamers would find a a hard way to play, because caps lock is the button of choice. It goes extremely well to the rest of the controllers in the settings. DONT YOU DIE

Well, this comment raises two questions. What do you mean by "DONT YOU DIE"?, and more importantly, would you not prefer a special button marked 'Mic'? I mean, seriously, if the best use you can claim for the Caps Lock button is "push to speak", then you are making my argument for me.

Last, there is the hardcore programmer community. It seems that some zombie programming languages still insist on everything being typed in 6-bit compatible uppercase. I can't argue with the facts. I am also (I confess) a hardcore programmer, and spent many wasted years typing hundreds of thousands of lines of COBOL, all in uppercase. I once wrote a complete editor (in COBOL) just so that I could type my programs in lower case and have the software do the work for me. Now, listen, hardcore programmers. If you really, really need to use dinosaur languages that think lowercase characters are a dangerous innovation, and you really, really can't get your hardcore programmer skills together long enough to write some macros or editors that will convert (wait for it...) an 'a' to an 'A'... well, at this point my sarcasm fails me. Look, there are hundreds of millions of dinosaur keyboards out there, a lifetime supply in every conceivable colour and format. Stop complaining. No-one is going to ban your use of Caps Lock. What you do behind closed doors is entirely your business. You can keep your COBOL and SQL and uppercase comments.

What we want is that new keyboards are designed to take into account that the world has changed since 1984, and we're starting by attacking that most villanous of relics, that confuser of innocents, that comforter of scammers and Fortran programmers, the Caps Lock key.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Day 2 in the CAPSoff Campaign

This was the Slashdot story that launched CAPSoff:

"I've launched a campaign to rid the world of the caps lock key. Sure, there are more serious problems to solve but please, think of the children! How am I going to explain to my kids why some of the most valuable keyboard real estate is squatted by a large, useless key that above all you must not press! Our campaign mission is simple: to send a message to the computer industry to force it (by any means necessary) to retire the CAPS key. It's going to be a hard, long, and possibly very embarassing war on uppercase, but some things just need to be done."

1149 people decided to comment on the story, 280 people joined the Google group. Ro3 opened an IRC channel (#CAPSoff on, and I started a wiki site for the campaign. If you want to join (to contribute), register with wikidot, and then email me.

Three separate Wired news journalists asked me for information, which I gave them. The message is clear. Caps Lock must go.

Now, here are some things people have said about CAPSoff:

Andrew Purvis says:
How can something that has been around since befreo the advent of the CTRL key be "right there where the Ctrl used to be"? If this is the level of thinking behind this movement, we can expect a relative fizzle in the end.

Relative fizzles can be fun too. You need to understand, Andrew, there is no "level of thinking" behind this campaign. It's not a subtle, political, strategic campaign. This is something I started yesterday morning when I woke up, thought, "Slashdot it! All these years and we're still forced to buy special keyboards, use special remapping software, or prise that lousy snakes-on-a-plane key off with Grandma's spare teeth. Someone has to stand up and say, "Enough is e-farking-nough!" It's not exactly an intellectual exercise! It's a war on uppercase.

Patricia says:
I do desktop publishing, and I sometimes need my CapsLock key. It's awkward at best to type whole sentences using only the shift key, and that's why there IS a CapsLock." She continues, "I would be open to changing key placement. Replace the current CapsLock with a volume or mute button, or something else that is actually useful. Then, use the CapsLock to replace the Pause/Break key that I haven't touched, except by accident, in 15 years.

Indeed. This is a compromise solution proposed by many people. Leftshoe even started an online petition for the relocation (not complete removal) of the Caps Lock key.

My question is: if we can use key combinations for such common functions as cut and paste, why does Caps Lock need to be key at all? Many people proposed suitable combinations like Shift+Tab, Shift+Shift, and Shift+NumLock.

gui.v00, who is a product designer, says:
If you find the C/L key so disturbing, which i don't quite agree with, wouldn't the same reasons be applied to the Scroll Lock/Pause/NumLock/The 'Right-Click' Key ? None of them, except for maybe NumLock, are used and can all be done without.

I would sooner get rid of all above mentioned keys and put the caps lock in their place, as i do agree with its horrible placement.

I think removing the C/L key is more like solving a small piece of the poblem (that is input device layout), and actually would not be logical to implement, as any change in key layout would scream for a total re-design which would be more like 're-framing' the qwerty keys instead of removing one single key. The C/L key is no more threatening than the Num Lock key as both effect the keyboard's input, so why not leave it alone! ;)

Brian also asks:
Can we also get rid of the Num Lock, Print Screen, Sys Request, Scroll Lock, Pause and Break keys?

And I have to agree. Caps Lock is just a symptom of a wider problem. Why does the computer industry still produce billions of unused keys?

gui.v00 finished with:
Let's put our energy into suggesting new and innovative ways of laying out input devices to better suit human needs.

And this sounds like an excellent idea. Let's see if it leads anywhere.

Craig, in the meantime, sent us some pictures of tortured keyboards, saying, "I am against all "LOCK" keys - see my keyboard picture." The photos are too horrible to print here (plus I'm too lazy to cut and paste the URLs) but you can find them on the Google group.

JJJJust says:
Consider yourself notified that I use the Caps Lock key... and that I'm not a 419 scammer or a Fortan programmer.

Well, JJJJust, all I can say is, I consider myself notified, and my answer is, "tough titties". If you want a Caps Lock key, after we wipe it off the face of the planet (or at least move it up to the top row where with luck it'll just fall off one day), you'll have to start a campaign to get it back.

Bertil points out that the other nations have even worse keyboard issues than Caps Lock:
In my case (French laptop) I cannot access figures (1, 2, . . . 9, 0) without either the Shift or CapsLock keys. This is due to the fact we use accented characters, and they are located there, as lower case. The less used characters are accessible with « Alt Gr » an alternative Alt key. I have done quite some database typing (an extreme case, I reckon), and the ability to lock the capitals was necessary.

French and German keyboards are indeed instruments of horror. You have my sympathies, Bertil. But just because you have to suffer, does not mean we do also. Caps Lock is an abomination for Qwerty users, and we're going to fix that. Then we may come and liberate you from Alt Gr. Or, instead, ask the French to switch to English as a national language, which is probably the easier option.

Spiralbound says
I've often wished that I had a short space bar underneath my number pad... That would be an awesome addition to keyboard layout!

Ah, you see! Once we start to wonder... "what would it be like to have a keyboard I really liked to use".

I have to thank everyone who has joined the CAPSoff group, and joined in with comments, helpful tips on how to rip off the Caps Lock key using everything from a pair of pliers to a disused whalebone, with LOL I'M VERY FUNN HAHA HAHA jokes, and with some very clever trolls.

Let's see how the campaign evolves. So far I'm counting about 60% straight-out support for the mission, 20% compromise positions, and 20% Fortran programmers, 419 scammers, and industrial data entry victims.

All I can say to the vocal minority that loves uppercase is: hey, guys, you go buy the special keyboards, for once.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What will replace the void?

So what do we do after the CAPS LOCK key is gone?

Here is the only logical plan.

1. Restore the Ctrl key to its rightful place.

2. Expand the space bar again.

3. Move the Caps Lock key up beside the Scroll Lock so that the Fortran programmers don't complain too much.

4. While we're at it, move all the wierd keys - like Num Lock - up to the top row. (Thanks, TuxTemplar, for this suggestion).

CAPSoff FAQ (updated 21 August)

Although the CAPSoff campaign was launched only a few breathless minutes ago, some people have asked pertinent questions that deserve an answer.

- Question: how do I enter C macros, which have to be uppercase? Answer: you still program in C? Bizarre. So do I. Anyhow, if you notice, when you use CAPS LOCK, you have to press shift to get an underscore. Very annoying. So do what I do, and hold the SHIFT key with one pinkie, then type your macro.

- Question: what about data-entry people who NEED TO DO EVERYTHING IN CAPS? Answer: I've nothing against the caps-lock function. It can be a convenient combination like Ctrl+Alt+Ins. It just should not be a (large and easily pressed) key (in such a useful location).

- Question: I've remapped CAPS LOCK to CTRL. What will I do if CAPS LOCK disappears? Answer: wouldn't you rather just get new keyboards with Control where you expect it?

- Question: are you serious? Answer: always. :-) The CAPS LOCK key must go.

Today is 16 August 2006, and I've launched CAPSoff.

I wrote my first CV on a manual typewriter, used carbon paper to make a copy, and carefully sent it to my prospective employer. The year was 1984 and the CV got me an interview and a job.

We still use the typewriter interface... the qwerty layout, the spacebar, the backspace in the top right corner. Like all interfaces, it's hard to change once it gets a lot of users. Even my mobile phone has a full qwerty keyboard, and I love it.

But there's one thing that's annoyed me for years. OK, there were bigger annoyances at the time, and work, family life, and obligation buried the problem for a long time. But yesterday, as I found myself typing a row of uppercase and I asked myself, "wtf is this?", I realised that enough is enough, and sometimes, we just gotta do what we gotta do.

So I decided to do something about it. The CAPS key is an abomination. We all know that. It's a huge key, stuck right there where the Ctrl used to be, and as far as I know, it's only used by 419 scammers and Fortran programmers.

Now, I can understand that the keyboard producers of the world don't really appreciate the problem. For them, one key is as good as another, and no-one's complained, so why change a perfectly good model?

Obviously the keyboard producers have been so indoctrinated that they don't even inspect their own products any longer. Listen, dudes: no-one wants that crummy CAPS key. It's history. It dates back to the times when bold meant going back and typing the same text twice.

And so I have launched CAPSoff, a campaign to change the world, one key at a time. We're going to start with the CAPS LOCK key, which is fat and useless and has no friends, so should be an easy target. Maybe after that we can gang up on the SysRq key.

To succeed, CAPSoff will need to convince a bunch of very large, very stupid organisations, that the computer users of the world really don't want this key. It's going to have to organise letter-writing campaigns, petitions, websites, and lots of activism. We may have to organise conferences, protests, and even sponsor pro-reform.political candidates.

Although the CAPS key may seem an easy target, we're going to have to get a lot of people involved and active, to get rid of it.

So this is my plan. How do we build such an organisation? Can we do it entirely using free services from Google? (I'm no special admirer of Google but it seems they're aiming to become the main web-based service provider.)

Can we organise entirely using free online tools? Google groups, Freenode irc?

I don't know. But it's going to be fun finding out.

Pieter Hintjens