The caps-lock key: WOULD YOU MISS IT?

Ben Patterson
Technology News Blog

Losing the spinning hard drive from its Chrome OS laptops is one thing, but the news that Google would jettison the caps-lock key from its upcoming notebooks REALLY got the tech world in a twist.

"We expect this will improve the quality of comments across the Web," joked Chrome project head Sundar Pichai during Tuesday's unveiling, provoking some gasps, a few titters, and even a cheer or two. (Oh, and the function keys are getting thrown out with the bathwater, too.)

I admit that the news caught me a little off-guard. No caps-lock key? How would I live without it? Then again … when was the last time I really used the caps lock — besides the times I've hit the key by accident? Would I — or anyone — really miss it? (Incidentally, Google says you can turn the "modifier" key on its test Cr-48 Chrome netbook into a caps-lock key by tweaking the correct settings.)

The caps-lock key has been standard-issue on PC keyboards for decades. All too often, though, it's been used to write BLARING E-MAILS AND COMMENTS that look LIKE SOMEONE'S SHOUTING.

All-caps shouting isn't restricted to blogs, of course. Newbies and trolls have been yelling (intentionally or not) in e-mail and in Usenet forums (remember those?) well before the Web.

There are even a couple of Web-based campaigns against the caps-lock key (CAPSoff and anticAPSLOCK) as well as a contrarian, somewhat tongue-in-cheek site (PROCAPSLOCK) that argues in favor of the widely hated key. And in case you missed it, International Caps Lock Day was observed just a few weeks ago. (HURRAY!)

CAPSoff traces the history of the caps-lock key back to the first IBM PC keyboards in the early 1980s, with the key relegated to a relatively out-of-the-way spot to the right of the space bar, below the shift key.

By 1986, however, IBM rolled out an "enhanced" keyboard, which moved the caps-lock key to its more prominent, now-standard position, directly below the tab key.

Before the caps-lock key, of course, was the "shift-lock" key, which dates back all the way to the era of manual typewriters. Heck, I remember using shift-lock on my old manual typewriter when I was a kid: You had to mash it down to lift (or shift, hence the "shift" key) the array of metal character strikers (a.k.a., the typebars) into their secondary position for capital letters, symbols and so on.

The shift-lock key came in handy on manual typewriters and other pre-PostScript relics, when adding italics wasn't an option. It also worked well for the titles of my grade-school book reports. Come to think of it, even the daisy-wheel printers I used with my dad's Apple II back in the early '80s (yes, I'm dating myself here) couldn't do italics.

Nowadays, of course, writing in italics is a piece of cake, which means the all-caps key is only needed for … uh, what's it needed for again, besides yelling in blog comments and punching in your Microsoft Office registration code? (I'm all ears, seriously — please don't yell TOO LOUD, though.)

Anyway, I ask you, netizens: Would you miss the caps-lock key? (Let the avalanche of all-caps comments begin.)

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.

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