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MacBooks Are a Writer's Tool - Don't Mess with the Keyboard

Editorial - MacBooks Are a Writer's Tool - Don't Mess with the Keyboard

by , 4:55 PM EDT, July 30th, 2008

There has been some discussion lately about new MacBooks, exotic trackpads, gestures, obsolete mouse buttons and virtual keyboards. The one thing that Apple needs to keep in mind is that MacBooks are the livelihood of many writers, and a radical departure from the ergonomics of writing would create serious problems.

Like many on the Internet, both writers and coders, I live on my keyboard. It becomes an extension of my body as a writer. Not only is it a mechanical tool, but the unique personality of the writer, his or her bio-physics, and physiological traits create powerful preferences regarding the feel of the keyboard.

I submit that on a handheld device like the iPhone, the principal use of the virtual keyboard is short, cryptic, and often typo-ridden messages. Or an occasional password. But when one is writing a novel or doing a lot of coding, the physical keyboard takes on an added dimension.

For a long time, I used a Matias Tactile Pro keyboard. I was seeking the Holy Grail of the legacy "IBM Selectric" touch, sought by many who learned to type on one of those old-fashioned contraptions called a typewriter. The Matias keyboard was loud and crisp. Lately, however, I found that the key "throw" was too long, and it was taking me too long to complete each key. That was introducing errors.

Milliseconds count in this business.

So I experimented and settled on an Apple aluminum keyboard. I never thought that an Apple keyboard [forgive me] would suit my needs, but the short, crisp throw of the Apple aluminum keyboard has been very helpful: less fatigue, fewer errors.

I suspect that many Apple customers and some observers of Apple are dreaming of getting rid of the physical keyboard. At one time, we all thought that we'd be working like David Pogue, verbally dictating our text. That works for some, but not others. Many just want to make their new Apple notebook slimmer and lighter and cooler -- but they don't think about the feel of the keyboard.

The real issue is, and I hope Apple engineers realize it, that the MacBook/Pro series is a serious tool for many writers, many of whom are mobile and need a notebook computer for their craft.

Before Apple drifts into radical departures from the traditional keyboard on a notebook computer, born of an obsession with patents, gestures, virtual keys and a desire to make the competition look bad, I hope the company does a boatload of ergonomic research to figure out how their bread-and-butter customer base, creative professionals, views the keyboard.

Personally, I'm betting that we'll not see any big departures, and the keyboard of the MacBook Air will remain with us for some time to come.

Or maybe Apple will figure out something elegant that still meets the peculiar and idiosyncratic needs of writers. And believe me, writers can get very fussy indeed about their beloved keyboards. It's a deeply human thing, not to be taken lightly for the sake of appearances.

Referring to the Amazon Kindle, Steve Jobs once said that nobody reads anymore. I hope he doesn't think, therefore, that nobody writes anymore.

John Martellaro is the afternoon editor of The Mac Observer and a freelance writer. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer and has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his nearly five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for Science and Technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests, in addition to all things Apple, include alpine skiing, science fiction, astronomy and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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