The keyboard that goes “CLICK”

When I got a computer for my new office at Stanford last year, it came with the Apple wireless keyboard, a piece of equipment that some people like very much, and that has a handsome and minimalist design. The bluetooth connection was, however, occasionally flaky, and it seemed silly to have a battery operated device sitting in front of a desktop. So I decided to buy a wired keyboard instead, and since everybody raves about how good it is to type on Lenovo laptops, I thought Lenovo would sell a keyboard made to feel like their laptops. Unfortunately there does not seem to be such a thing.

Searching for information about keyboards, however, I found a whole online cult devoted to the keyboards that IBM made for its PC in the 1980s: the IBM Model M keyboard. Although I never owned or used an IBM PC, I remember using similar keyboards when I was a graduate student in the mid 1990s, and we each had a terminal on our desk connected to a mainframe in the basement. The terminals had monochromatic, text-only, displays, but they keyboards were good, and, every time you would press a key, they would go *CLICK*, just like the 1980s IBM keyboards. (The terminals were made by HP and were 1980s technology.)

The license/patents to make these keyboards went to Lexmark, when IBM spun off its printers/devices business. Making the keyboards, however, was not profitable because they never break — see for example this video of a Model M versus a watermelon.

Lexmark then sold the license/patents to Unicomp, an American company whose business is to make clones of the IBM Model M keyboard and other 1980s models.

So that’s what I got for my office and, while I feel rather self-conscious about showing enthusiasm about a keyboard, it is awesome. (To be precise, the keyboard I got is not an exact clone of the IBM model M: mine has a USB cable, a “Windows” key, and it works with a Mac without drivers. The Windows key becomes the “command” key. For the purists, it is possible to buy actual IBM models M, with a PS/2 interface which can be connected to a USB via converter, at, where they even have “mint condition never used” ones.)

This term, as readers of in theory might have noticed, I am writing notes for two classes, which means that I am typing for roughly 15-20 hours a week, mostly at home. Usually, at home I would work using the laptop on the sofa, and use my desk for storage, but this wasn’t good this term, so I (mostly) cleared the desk, got a monitor, a mouse, another, awesome Unicomp keyboard, and hooked it all up to my MacBook Air (which has new hinges, yay!).

This is where I ran into some problems, related to the fact that Apple is evil, and that it designs intentionally defective products.

For example, the MacBook Air can work connected to a monitor and with the lid closed, which is how I prefer because I would find the small screen of the laptop distracting when using a large monitor. It is a not very well-documented feature, and using it always reminds me of the “put. the candle. back” scene in Young Frankenstein. You turn your laptop on, you connect it to the monitor, then you put it to sleep by closing the lid, and then you wake it up again. How do you wake it up? Why, with the keyboard or mouse that you have attached to the USB ports. Wait, there is only one USB port. So you connect the one USB port to the monitor, which acts as a bridge and connect the keyboard and mouse to the monitor. Now, however, the keyboard doesn’t work to wake up the computer (it works only if it’s connected directly). For some reason, the mouse, thankfully work, if you click (not if you move it). But, not so soon: this only works if the laptop is connected to a power source. If it’s on battery power, it will wake up, and one second later go to sleep again, and you are left wondering why, then you try doing it again several times, until you get the Mac equivalent of the blue screen of death. Why can’t I work with the lid closed, connected to a monitor, if I don’t have the power adapter with me? I am sure someone, at some point, thought that there was a very good reason.

Apple, by the way, patented the plug with which the power adapter connects to the laptop. This means that third parties cannot make power adapters for Macs, and one has to buy them at ridiculous mark-ups from Apple.

Moving on, I have the Apple SuperDrive, an external USB CD/DVD player — the MacBook Air has no optical disk player. So I thought I would also connect it to the monitor, so every time I plug in the laptop I would also have access to the player.

Or so I thought, because it didn’t work. It turns out that between the USB interface and the controller of the disk there is some additional circuitry that starts the USB connection with some secret handshake. MacBooks know how to answer, and it works fine, but you cannot use the SuperDrive with a PC, an older Mac, or even a MacBook if you plug it in through a USB bridge. I should add one more time, the MacBook Air has only one USB port. It is possible to hack it, but things involving soldering are way beyond my reach.

I understand that the failing hinges on the MacBook Air and the failing antenna on the iPhone 4 were honest mistakes, and that the choice of making the batteries inaccessible was a trade-off between various design constraints. But who adds something to a piece of hardware with the only purpose of not making it work?

6 thoughts on “The keyboard that goes “CLICK”

  1. I got a Unicomp SpaceSaver a little over 2 years ago, and a Das Keyboard about 2 months ago. I once read an article claiming that of all devices found at a typical home computer, the keyboard is one of the only (or the only?) device that has generally decreased in quality over time, mainly for the reason you stated (high-quality, sturdy keyboards are not profitable). A one-time, only modestly high fee for a device that makes what we all do often more pleasurable is I think a good investment.

  2. First you publish code on, then you buy Model M clones, and now you brag about your desktop like on the guys at…

    Are you going to move into programming and make millions (or billions) of dollars with a start-up? đŸ˜€

  3. The MacBook Air’s USB port outputs at a higher amperage (more than the normal USB specification), which is why it won’t work on other ports.

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