The Caps Lock key is an ill-conceived mistake for computer keyboards. However, it is also a fascinating example of the power of inertia. Even though it clearly hurts people, it is still around. Because it is familiar, its absence scares people, and so they ask for it when it is missing.
We all know that Caps Lock causes problems. If you have used a computer, then you have had to retype what you wrote because Caps Lock RUINED it. Normally, hitting the wrong key types one wrong letter. But if you hit Caps Lock, it messes up everything else you type, until you notice the problem and turn Caps Lock off. Accidentally hitting Caps Lock is the #1 reason for seeing “Incorrect Password” several times.
I have never heard a good argument for the Caps Lock key. Any system where text must be entered in uppercase is a non-starter. If the text needs to be in uppercase, then it is trivial for the system to convert any lowercase text to uppercase as it is entered. The problem is that the system is poorly designed, not that the capslock key is necessary. Software development is complex, this feature is not. The point of software is to make user’s jobs easier. Anyone who is paying for software that forces users to toggle Caps Lock, when the software could do the work instead, is being ripped off.
Unfortunately, because keyboards have always had Caps Lock, people expect it. If it is missing, or moved, they feel uncomfortable. Sun keyboards have the Ctrl and Caps Lock buttons swapped. (picture) The often-used Ctrl button is large, while the seldom-used-and-never-for-a-good-reason Caps Lock button is small and down in the lower-left of the keyboard. People press Ctrl key more often then Caps Lock, so making it larger and easier to hit is an improvement to the keyboard design.
I first used a Sun keyboard the summer after my Freshman year in college. I only used it for a few hours, then I swapped it out for a “normal” keyboard, because I was not used to it. In retrospect that was stupid. I would have had an ergonomically better time If I’d kept the Sun keyboard. But I didn’t know any better back then. I just knew that I didn’t like it because it was different.
Fast forward a few years, and a lot of learning. During my summer at Microsoft, I took a pocket-knife and popped off the Caps Lock, and Insert keys from my keyboard. Suddenly, my typos only affected one or two letters, not whole sentences. When programming I occasionally had to type things that LOOK_LIKE_THIS, and I would find my pinky hovering over the hole where the Caps Lock used to be. But I would just shift it down a fraction of an inch, to press Shift, and keep typing. The gaping hole gave good tactile feedback when I tried to press it, which made learning to avoid it easy. After about a month I only used the Shift key. I never had a hard time holding it down with my pinky while typing with my other 9 fingers. Of all the ways I customized my workstation, removing the Caps Lock and Insert did the most to lower my frustration, because they dramatically lowered the number of typos I had to correct.
I can understand why people think they need a Caps Lock key. I used to think I did. Unfortunately, some ‘professional designers’ who should know better do not understand the problem ether:
“I don’t see (the Caps Lock key) being a problem at all,” says Joel East, a technical designer at Ikey, a company that manufactures custom keyboards and pointing devices for industrial applications. “The Caps Lock key is there, and people can choose to use it or not.”
That’s bullshit. People can’t choose never to use it, because they can’t stop themselves from accidentally hitting it. If you put a big button next to a very commonly used key like Shift, people will inevitably hit it accidentally — especially if they are pressing buttons without looking — which is exactly what touch typing is. That’s basic industrial design. It truly scares me that people like Mr. East are considered professional keyboard designers.
If you are using Mac OS X, you can disable or remap Caps Lock by pressing the “Modifier keys…” button under the Keyboard tab in the “Keyboard and Mouse” System Preferences. If you are not using a laptop, I recommend physically taking the key off. The sensation of finding a hole instead of a key gives superior feedback that Caps Lock has been disabled. It can be confusing if you are used to having a Caps Lock key, and suddenly it does not work when you hit it. Removing the actual key avoids the confusion, and helps you adjust quickly and painlessly to your improved keyboard layout.
Try one month without Caps Lock, you will be pleasantly surprised.
EDITED TO ADD (2007-10-04): Apparently Apple’s latest keyboards have a bias against accidentally activating Caps Lock, and another bias to turn it off as soon as possible. Great news!