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Will IBM’s New Board Be a Key Event for PCs?

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

The most welcome news out of IBM in a long time was its recent announcement of a new keyboard layout for most of its new microcomputers. Finally, a keyboard standard has emerged, I thought.

At least that’s the way it seemed initially. Now that I’ve spent some time exploring the impact of the new keyboard, it’s not quite as happy a situation as I had hoped, but it’s very welcome nonetheless.

IBM builds the best keyboard around for its line of Selectric typewriters, and has for years. But maybe this American giant didn’t think microcomputer users knew how to type when it introduced the PC in 1981.

That’s the kindest explanation I have for why it made all the keys the same size, forced you to stretch your left pinky over the back-slash key and stuck the caps-lock key down in Alabama (if you imagine the map of the United States superimposed on top of that keyboard). Personally, I always suspected that the PC was given such a miserable keyboard to keep it from infringing on sales of IBM’s Display Writer dedicated word-processing system.

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Although the old keyboard does have its fans, and even I made my peace with it, a company named Key Tronic Corp. of Spokane, Wash., has done a brisk business selling substitute keyboards that fix many of the problems that IBM created.

When the IBM PC AT came along about 18 months ago, it had a much improved keyboard. The Selectric-style layout was there with the important keys enlarged. But it still suffered from the awkwardness imposed by making the cursor and screen control functions share keys with the numeric 10-key pad so that only one set of functions is available at a time.

Now the staff at IBM has redesigned the keyboard a third time, and I heartily congratulate them. They finally got it right. The “enhanced personal computer keyboard” with its 101 keys (compared to 83 on the original) is truly worthy of being made a standard.

The enhanced keyboard has a Selectric layout and better placement of the caps-lock, control and alternate keys. More important, cursor and screen control keys have been separated from the numeric keypad with the cursor keys arranged in an inverted T that should be easy to get used to. The numeric 10-key pad has been enhanced as well with division (/) and enter keys added. The print screen, scroll lock and pause functions get their own keys as well.

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A major addition is two new function keys--F11 and F12--that join the other 10 function keys in a row across the top of the keyboard. Those keys are meant to make it easier to use the PC in conjunction with a host IBM mainframe computer, and thus the new keyboard will also be used on the 3270 versions of the PC XT and AT, replacing the 3270 keyboard, previously sold with those specialized models, which had 24 function keys.

Little, if any, of the PC application software now being sold can utilize the two extra keys on the new enhanced keyboard, and the need for compatibility with existing PCs and clones will probably prevent most programs from making use of them anytime soon.

It’s going to take a while for the new keyboard to become a standard because IBM has decreed that it will be available only on the new model PC XT, PC AT and the PC RT (a new PC aimed at the scientific and engineering work-station market), as well as the 3270 PC XT and AT. It will not be available on the plain PC, nor can it be plugged into existing PCs, XTs or ATs.

IBM’s answer to customers who want to upgrade their existing machines to match the new keyboard is “No.” Instead, it will allow buyers of the new machines to downgrade them to match their old computers by offering the new models with the old keyboard as an option.

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The reason the new keyboard won’t work in existing machines is that their circuitry--specifically a microchip called the ROM BIOS (for read only memory basic input/output system)--cannot recognize the new “scan codes” generated by the added keys of the new keyboard.

An IBM spokesman said the company hasn’t experimented to see if replacing the ROM BIOS in an existing machine with the new version would allow the new keyboard to be successfully plugged in. But, even if it worked, the parts will be available only for repair use by IBM dealers, so the issue is probably moot.

What little reaction the rest of the computer industry had to the new keyboard was favorable, but mostly the attitude was to wait and see. John Lugviel, distribution director for Key Tronic, said it validated what the company has been doing for several years in offering its 5151 keyboard, which Lugviel said already has virtually every feature of the new keyboard except the two extra function keys.

But Lugviel also said that “the chances are very high that we will have a keyboard that is very similar” in the future. That may be the way that offices with a mix of old and new machines will be able to achieve compatibility of keyboard layouts among them.

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Key Tronic makes the keyboards for Compaq, the leading maker of IBM clones, but Lugviel said the company hasn’t asked for a new keyboard for its machines.

Michael Swavely, Compaq’s vice president for marketing, said the new keyboard confuses the market because it is different and existing software isn’t tailored to it. “We don’t feel it is a standard in itself,” Swavely said. “Unless it is accepted by users, it will not be a standard. IBM no longer controls the standard.”

But he also called it “a nice keyboard” and said Compaq may apply the layout to future products. At Lotus Development Corp., publisher of Lotus 1-2-3 and Symphony software, spokeswoman Sarah Wickham said: “We don’t anticipate that there will be any significant impact, but we are still looking into it.” And at Ashton-Tate, publisher of dBase III and Framework programs, Roy Folk, executive vice president of marketing and planning, said: “This is not something that will occasion a software change for us.”

Meanwhile, at DataDesk International of Van Nuys, which sells a $99 PC AT-style keyboard bundled with Borland’s Superkey, operations manager Bill Childress said the new IBM introduction “allowed us to follow through with our next design. We’ll duplicate their design.”

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The Computer File welcomes readers’ comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O’Reilly, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.


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