Microsoft: It's the little things


I have a pet peeve when it comes to computer keyboards: The Fn key. I have no idea why anyone who's ever used a computer in their life would design a keyboard with the Fn key on the bottom left next to the Control, Windows/Command, and Alt keys. We use the standard modifier keys a thousand times a day, but the function key is almost rarely - if ever - used and almost never in a standard way. Why would you put it in an area so important to the daily use of your computer?

Sure, laptops may use the Fn key for the volume or brightness control, or to get to the FNum keys above a certain number (like F7 on my current keyboard), or maybe to activate some custom functionality like sleep, trackpad locking or media playback (who actually uses that?). On desktops, which usually have bigger keyboards, I'm not even sure why you'd want the Fn key at all. Regardless, it's easily the least used key on the keyboard, and most assuredly does not belong next to control keys you use all day (especially for programmers, but even for spreadsheet jockeys and other power users). Putting it over there is simply moronic. You would think as time has gone by, and usability becomes ever more important user experience/customer satisfaction factor, this stupidity would stop. Yet, every year we see keyboards - both for desktop and laptops - that shove the rarely used Fn key down in the bottom left of the keyboard, making the other more important modifier keys jammed in, smaller and as a result harder to target with your thumb or pinky. It's amazing to me that such an obvious flaw would go for so long unchanged.

So what does this have to do with Microsoft? Well, the other day I was in Best Buy and I wandered by the computer section to check out the laptops and tablets. The new "ultrabooks" are all pretty sweet, and I love the Apple-inspired chicklet style keys on the keyboard. But the first thing I do when I look at a laptop is to look at the modifier keys. And I noticed something... Every single Windows 8 Certified computer has that fucking Fn key jammed in the bottom left. ALL of them. From Samsung, Acer, Asus, Sony, HP, etc. Every single computer with the new Windows logo (even desktops!) has the Fn key in the same spot.

The idiots at Microsoft must have standardized the position of the Fn key in the bottom left! Those unbelievable morons!! Rather than fix this flaw found in some keyboards, Microsoft has gone ahead and made sure that *every* keyboard will have it instead. Absolutely astounding.

But wait, don't Mac keyboards have this same flawed design? Well, the wired desktop keyboard *doesn't* have the Fn key, which makes sense as it's not needed. And the MacBook keyboard has had it for years because - I assume - the Fn key is actually used more on Apple laptops because by default all the hardware control keys (brightness, volume, etc.) are turned on, and you need to use the Fn turn them *off* (insane, but true). That doesn't mean I like the keyboard layout any more, or give Apple a pass on this bit of UX stupidity, but I understand the reasoning for it at least. (Personally, I'd like to smack Sir Jony Ives up the head with the Apple Bluetooth keyboard every time he starts waxing lyrically about hardware usability and ask him why the Fn key remains in the middle of the most used keys on the keyboard...)

What makes Microsoft's decision so annoying is they had a chance to do it right, but fucked it up. It's these little things that Microsoft consistently screws up that end up affecting us all in little negative ways every day. It's a million paper cuts, and the Win8 position of the Fn key is just the most recent of many.

Here's my favorite Microsoft small-but-fucking-annoying screwup:


It's the Win7/Win8 Control Panel. Notice how it's arranged in columns like Windows Explorer's List View? But instead of being sorted vertically, it's sorted horizontally. The files are in alphabetical order going across each row, then it goes to the next one below that - if you resize the window, the position of *all* the options move around as it resets the columns. It's the only list screen like it in the entire OS (in *ANY* OS for that matter, as far as I know), yet one that's used pretty regularly. Every time I open it, I struggle to find what I'm looking for because I expect the columns to be arranged vertically. What complete jackass thought this was a good idea? Why didn't the people doing QA or UX raise a flag that this was a small inconsistency that could potentially cause yet another in a line of small bit of pain and get it fixed? Who knows.

They Fn key position is another one of these stupid Microsoft decisions that isn't the worst in the world, but another incredibly annoying choice that we all end up living with. It also shows the dual-personality of the company in blazing detail: Part of Microsoft has the ability to make incredibly innovative hardware and software (XBox 360, Surface, "Metro UI" are good examples). The problem is that the *rest* of the company is obviously filled with zombie-like drones who continue to let bad choices bubble up through the bureaucracy, infecting us all. You know the annoying side of Microsoft from the 90s - the one which has ZERO creativity or initiative - is apparently still alive and well and clueless as always. I can almost hear one of the drones saying, "Just make it look like Apple's MacBook keyboard," without any thought as to why that would be a bad idea.


Speaking of the Surface - notice it doesn't have the Fn key in the bottom left. Amazing, no? Every single new Windows 8 laptop has the same exact four keys (with the shiny new Windows logo) in the bottom left, *except* Microsoft's own hardware. I would bet heavily this was because Surface was made by an in-house team of people who actually have a clue and actually put thought into every aspect of the hardware and decided that putting the Fn key down in the bottom left was fucking moronic. Since the internal team didn't have to abide by the rules or standards that the OEMs apparently have to, they were able to leave it out. (How much you want to bet that the next version of the Surface conforms, as the innovators get moved off to another area in Microsoft or simply leave... I'd bet a lot.)

[image]For what it's worth, I LOVE Microsoft's Arc keyboard (and the MS Mobile Mouse 3500, if you want to know). I've purchased *several* so that I can use them with various machines I regularly use - including my Mac (you get used to using the Windows key as the Command key pretty quickly). Despite having the worst arrow keys I've ever used (followed by horrible delete and escape keys), the rest has such a great feel to make it my favorite keyboard ever. Most importantly, it has only the three primary modifier keys in the bottom left. Yes, it was designed before the new Windows 8 standard and has the old logo and is therefore Left Fn-key Free. Sadly, it looks like the team that made the Arc keyboard has moved on or succumbed to the greater bureaucratic forces in Microsoft, as their new Wedge Mobile Keyboard includes the dreaded Fn key.

The point to all this bitching is to point out once again that Microsoft's influence still is so huge, that their boneheaded decisions end up affecting everyone who uses technology. The Fn key is yet another small annoyance in a long line of annoyances caused daily by Microsoft - not enough to really affect your productivity all that much, but just enough to slightly piss you off every day when you miss-click a key that shouldn't be where it is. It's almost inescapable. The next time I buy a laptop, or replace my keyboard I'm almost certainly going to end up with one of these brain-dead keyboards - even companies like Logitech have come into line, producing keyboards with this apparently standard layout. This *sucks*, and it's entirely the fault of one company: Thanks, Microsoft.

I honestly wish Microsoft would get its shit together. No company is perfect, and they're far from their peak in terms of dominance, but they're still far too influential in the industry for them to be consistently screwing things up in small but far-reaching ways like this. I mean, how many decades of this sort of crap do we have to put up with? I think it's been too many already.


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