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The Caps Lock Key — Love it or Hate it?

By Barry Abisch
Provided by WorldNow

Don’t you just hate it when THIS HAPPENS?

Or when you are blocked from your YouTube account even though you entered the hidden password ever so carefully, one c-h-a-R-A-C-T-E-R at a time?

There is no easy way to gauge just how much time is wasted undoing the mistakes caused by an inadvertently engaged Caps Lock key. Or how many Caps Lock errors go undetected until a resume is in the hands of an interviewer. But it seems safe to say that even the most skilled of touch typists has a Caps Lock problem at least once in a while.

 “I guess occasionally I tap it when meaning to press Shift, and have to remedy the situation” admits Tonya Skinner, who teaches keyboarding at Oran High School in Missouri.

Still, despite the occasional “oops” moment, Skinner said she does not consider the Caps Lock key to be much of a nuisance. At the same time, Skinner conceded that Caps Lock is not a key she herself ever uses. (At least not intentionally.) She just holds down the Shift key to type a string of upper case letters.

Skinner’s perspective appears to sum up the status of the Caps Lock key. It is a key that is of little general utility and is sometimes frustrating, but not sufficiently bothersome that many people do anything about it. Still, there are signs that organized efforts to erradicate the Caps Lock key are beginning to make inroads.

Probably the most visible campaign was mounted by Pieter Hintjens, CEO of the Belgian technology company iMatix, who two years ago developed the CAPSoff.org Website.  CAPSoff was dedicated to convincing keyboard manufacturers to drop the Caps Lock key. Although the Web site remains on line, the active campaign was concluded at the end of  2006.

“Mostly, CAPSoff was successful in terms of generating publicity, but failed in terms of creating any ongoing momentum,” Hintjens said in an e-mail message. “However, I think the campaign probably gave keyboard designers around the world some courage to remove that key from new designs.”

Without claiming direct credit, Hintjens said that “most new devices now don’t come with Caps Lock, or make it really easy to switch,” citing specifically Mac keyboards, One Laptop Per Child and most mobile phones.

Macintosh users can disable the CapsLock key through the system preferences menu, which is easily accessed. And, last year, Apple changed the way the Caps Lock key operates on some Mac keyboards, so it takes a deliberate press rather than an inadvertent brush to activate.

The compact XO laptop made by One Laptop Per Child has a small keyboard, and dropping the Caps Lock key to make room for something more useful was an easy decision, said spokesperson Jackie Lustig.

 “It  wasn’t a deep, philosophical discussion,” Lustig said. “Nicholas Negroponte felt that the Caps Lock key is useless, and even annoying, so it was eliminated.” Negroponte is the former head of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He founded OLPC as a non-profit organization to make personal computers available to children in developing nations around the world.

Unlike Macintosh computers, Windows PCs do not have a simple  way to disable the Caps Lock key. It requires changes to the Registry, a frightening, and dangerous, place for all but the most tech-savvy PC users. An erroneous keystroke in the Registry can have consequences far more disastrous than the occasional Caps Look miscue.

As an alternative, some people reportedly have simply pried the plastic cap from the key to make an inadvertent key press less likely. Others download software which disables Caps Lock  by  safely making changes to the Registry. Several versions of the software are available on the Web, including one download which originated with Hintjens’ CAPSoff campaign.

During 2006, Hintjens announced a competition to design a better keyboard. For starters, it had to be a layout without a Caps Lock key. The winning design, called “Colemak,” was developed by Shai Coleman.

Free software can be downloaded from the Colemak.com Web site to remap any PC or Mac keyboard to the Colemak layout. Among other benefits, Coleman says you can type 35 times as many words with the letters in the home row, compared to the standard QWERTY keyboard.

But if you don’t want to use the full Colemak layout, you can download only a patch which turns the Caps Lock key into a Backspace key.

Coleman said approximately 1,600 people had downloaded Colemak by early 2008. Among them is James McKay, a Web developer who lives in southwestern England and credits Colemak with turning him into an almost 70 words-per-minute typist.

“The thing I like most about Colemak’s approach to Caps Lock in particular is not so much what it does away with, as what it replaces it with,” he said in an e-mail. “Backspace is an insanely commonly used key, yet it is tucked out of the way in the top right hand corner of the keyboard…However, the Caps Lock key occupies prime real estate on the keyboard, although there are very few occasions when you really need it.”

McKay has modified the Colemak standard, so the original Backspace key now functions as a Caps Lock. “There are occasions when Caps Lock comes in handy,” he said. “When you have to type abbreviations, for instance, or when you are writing computer code in case sensitive languages.”

In fact, one of the earliest computer languages – FORTRAN, developed by IBM in the 1950s and still in use – is written largely in upper case letters. A  theory floated on the Internet suggests programmers included the Caps Lock on the first computer keyboards because it made their life easier, and they were not worried about anyone else in those days before computers got personal.

Tonya Skinner, the Missouri teacher, also sees utility in the Caps Lock key because it avoids the need to press two keys in combination to generate an upper case letter.

 “I would presume for some students that Caps Lock is a good thing, especially those with disabilities,” she said.   “I know I do have some of those students and they use Caps Lock to capitalize instead of Shift.”

But Skinner, and her students, also know what can occur when the Caps Lock key is pressed in error.

The program she uses to teach keyboarding “gets pretty cranky” about Caps Lock, she said. “Sometimes (students) say that the program isn’t working, when they actually have Caps Lock on and didn’t realize it.” 

And who doesn’t hate it when THAT HAPPENS?

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