May 5, 2008
IBM Model-M Keyboard
Flash back to the 1960s for a moment. IBM was a major manufacturer of typewriters with their Selectric line. It was a simpler time … typewriters were judged on how well they typed. The way to sell lots of typewriters was to give you an extremely satisfying experience typing on them, both in feel and speed. The keyboard was a make or break proposition for the typewriter, and IBM had an amazing product in this respect. At no other time in history have so many resources been put towards the typing experience.
Now flash forward from the 1960s to 1981. IBM is still making great Selectric typewriters, but they’ve got a new product: The IBM Personal Computer. With such a large base of Selectric customers, the PC was a natural upgrade path. The PC can do so much more than the typewriter, and the keyboard—no longer center stage—is just one of many parts of that whole.
But how does IBM convert those Selectric customers to PC customers? How does IBM take this new, mysterious machine and make the Selectric customer feel at home? The answer was to produce a keyboard that satisfied the Selectric user. There is little doubt that IBM’s substantial investment in keyboard technology played a role in their early success with the PC, XT, and then AT computers. The Model-M keyboard didn’t come along until 1984, but it uses essentially the same technology that appeared on the PC and XT. Though only the Model-M continues to work with today’s computers.
By comparison, Apple’s IIe and early Macintosh computers carried keyboards that are noticeably less satisfying to type on, bearing more resemblance to today’s computer keyboards. And this may have played a role in Apple’s struggle with attracting the business user early on. It was all about the keyboard, and IBM knew it. It became a symbol of quality that sold computers.
My first exposure to the Model-M was in 1989, as a Freshman in high school. Our school had a brand new computer lab full of IBM PS/2 computers, and I was taking a typing class. I had no idea what a Model-M was, but I immediately recognized that my keyboard at home (on a Packard Bell 286), felt like a toy compared to this IBM keyboard. In a typing class, you are judged on your typing speed (and accuracy of course). The loud clicking in the room made it clear exactly who was able to type fast, and who was not. And that was motivation enough to learn to type fast.
The Model-M is heavy (~7 pounds), and has a metal base with heavy duty plastic construction. It was built like something designed for a NASA Space mission. In other words, it’s extremely durable and overbuilt relative to today’s keyboards. There is little doubt that most Model-Ms can outlast any of us.
IBM’s keyboards were based on “buckling spring” technology. When you press a key, a small spring inside the key is compressed to the point where it buckles, near the bottom of the keystroke. This results in a loud clicking sound. It is particularly satisfying to type on for a couple of reasons. The clicking sound provides a clear—individually distinguishable—audible connection with the action of your fingers. You are drawn into it. While people around you might not appreciate the loud clicking noises, you are more connected to what you are thinking, typing, and seeing on the screen.
Then there is the less immediately noticeable, though perhaps more important benefit. The springs in each key act as shock absorbers for your fingers. When you complete a keystroke, it has been slowly absorbed by the spring. Unlike today’s keyboards, your fingers never bottom-out on a hard surface. The result? You can type faster, and longer. Your hands don’t tire the way they do with today’s keyboards. And I would think that this makes the potential for repetitive stress injury (RSI) much lower.
For these reasons, I consider the Model-M keyboard an important and timeless tool for web development. It makes my job easier, faster and more enjoyable. While the Model-M comes in a few different flavors, I have a preference for the Space-Saver model, which eliminates the numeric keypad and leaves more room on your desk. The pictures above are of the full size version, and the picture below is the SpaceSaver Model-M.