It’s time for Caps Lock to die
MAKING THE CASE FOR REPLACING CAPS LOCK
Look down at your keyboard. It’s one of the biggest keys on there, and I’d be willing to bet that you don’t use it very often. At its best, it’s stylistic fuel for enthusiastic internet comments.
At its worst, it’s a waste of precious space, an annoyance, a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist any more, and an unnecessary holdover from a time when typewriters were the bleeding edge of consumer technology.
Dearest Caps Lock, your time has come and gone. Go quietly.
WHY DOES IT EVEN EXIST?
The QWERTY keyboard debuted in 1873 on a typewriter that could only produce capital letters. A few years later came the Shift key, which toggled the typewriter’s output between lowercase and uppercase letters.
The Shift key physically shifted the internals of the typewriter, so it took some effort to press it down. Eventually, a Shift Lock key was created to hold it down. With Shift Lock engaged, letter keys produced their uppercase counterparts, but number keys produced symbols. That was a problem.
Doug Kerr was a telephone engineer working at Bell Labs in the 1960s. He watched his boss’s secretary repeatedly get frustrated after accidentally typing things like “$%^&” instead of “4567” in addresses because of Shift Lock.
So he did something about it. Doug Kerr invented the “CAP” key. CAP performed the same function as Shift Lock, except it only affected the letter keys.
“CAP” became Caps Lock, which made its way onto the computer keyboard, where it has remained part of the standard layout ever since.
IT’S NOT USEFUL ANY MORE
I reached out to Doug about his invention, and he responded that while he still uses Caps Lock regularly, “we don’t often today have a reason to type addresses in all caps, which was the context in which the need for the key first manifested itself to me.”
I would go a step further, and say that most of us don’t often have a reason to type anything in all caps today.
With a typewriter, there was no easy way to visually communicate the hierarchy of information, such as the difference between headers and body text. Writing in all capital letters was a good way to distinguish between different text when there wasn’t easy access to things like bold, italics, colours and font sizes.
That’s hardly the case today.
Caps Lock isn’t used often enough by the average person to deserve its own key — especially one of such prominence. Everything you do with a computer doesn’t warrant its own button on your keyboard.
Sure, typing in all capital letters is certainly useful for particular tasks that fewer than 1% of computer users will ever perform, and sure, Caps Lock might sometimes even be useful in a casual setting too, like SHOUTING SOMETHING IN A GROUP CHAT or writing an acronym without exhausting your pinky.
But here’s the thing: a toggle with the same functionality could easily be activated in a number of different ways for those who really want to write things in all capital letters. (Say, for example, double tapping the Shift key, like how it already works on your phone.)
Caps Lock is one of the largest keys on a modern keyboard, and it’s in one of the best spots — right next to the home row. It’s taking up prime real estate, and it’s not paying its rent any more.
IT’S REALLY ANNOYING
Have you ever been in the middle of typing something, and then you get the uneasy feeling thaT YOU FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN AND NOW YOU HAVE TO REWRITE YOUR WORDS?
You’re not alone. Accidentally activating Caps Lock is such a relatable mistake that it’s the introductory example for a research paper about accessibility issues with modern computer interfaces.
Caps Lock is so frequently engaged unintentionally that password fields in software have to include a “Caps Lock is on” warning.
The key can also confuse people, as those who aren’t already familiar with computers often type capital letters by turning Caps Lock on, pressing a single capital letter, and then turning Caps Lock off again. This is obviously inefficient.
“Typing in all caps is perceived as an accident, an affront or a call for help.”
WHAT SHOULD REPLACE IT?
There are a lot of common operations worthy of a prominent place on your keyboard. Some of the world’s most powerful companies have already taken steps toward replacing Caps Lock.
Google, the desperately innovative behemoth, has replaced Caps Lock on its Chromebook computers with a dedicated button for—you guessed it—search.
Another potential application could be something that is widely used in text input, but has no consistent activation method: emojis. While neither emojis nor writing in all capital letters are hallmarks of insightful thoughts, emojis are undoubtedly more cumbersome to produce than capital letters.
A patent filed by Apple in 2017 shows a keyboard with an “Emoji” button in the place where Caps Lock is normally found. Unfortunately, it’s probably just an experimental doodle that means nothing, as the keyboard in the drawing also lacks an E key, and it’s doubtful that Appl wants to eliminate an entire letter from the modern English alphabet.
Whatever ends up taking its place, it’s time for Caps Lock to go.
“After all,” as Doug Kerr, the creator of Caps Lock himself, put it to me in an email, “the Shift Lock key was what we had on keyboards before some kid thought of something better.”