Why I think that the IBM-style keyboard layout for the UK is better than the one for the US

It’s a source of some questions to me why the United States and the United Kingdom have two separate keyboard layouts, given that both layouts are made for the English language and for similar operating systems and computer systems. Certainly, the two keyboard layouts are more similar to each other than they would be to the AZERTY layouts of France and Germany, for instance, let alone a Dvorak keyboard or a keyboard for the likes of Devanagari or Arabic.

Nevertheless, the differences exist. I have primarily used the keyboard layout for the United Kingdom, both on 102- and 105-key keyboards, although I have occasionally used or had to use the layout for the United States. Clearly, then, I have the potential to be biased, although I’ll try to deal with this as objectively as possible. The tasks I perform with the keyboard range from writing text, programming in a number of different languages, performing keyboard shortcuts and navigating through a Linux terminal. In many of these fields, the differences between the UK’s keyboard layout and the United States keyboard have some significance.

Before I discuss why I think that the UK layout is superior, it may be illustrative to discuss the differences between the two keyboards briefly. The US layout, first demonstrated on the IBM Model M keyboard of 1984, has 101 keys, or on a keyboard with Windows and Menu keys, 104 keys in comparison to the 102 or 105 keys of the UK layout. The positions of some of the key symbols are moved, such as the movement of the hash key from the Shift-3 position on the US keyboard to a position directly beside the Enter key on a UK keyboard. To accommodate for these changes, two of the keys on the UK keyboard have slightly different shapes; the left Shift key is narrower, while the Enter key takes on a sort of upside-down L shape to accommodate the changes in keys in that area. Ultimately, the keyboards are more similar than they are different, but it is those small changes that can make somewhat of a difference.

The first advantage that I see on the UK keyboard is the provision of the additional key, which allows for more symbols to be placed onto the keyboard without requiring the use of modifier keys (such as Shift). In this vein, the pound symbol, for instance, can be placed onto the keyboard without requiring the removal of the hash symbol which is there on the US layout.

Secondly, most of the keys which have been moved have been placed in more advantageous positions. The hash symbol is common in some computer programming languages, being used for preprocessor statements in C, C++ and Objective-C. On the US layout, if you touch-type, you need to press the Shift key in addition to a key on the numeral row in order to print the character; on the UK layout, the symbol is placed on the home row and does not require a modifier key for it to be printed. Similarly, the @ symbol and the tilde, both of which have applications in computer technology, have been moved from the numeral row to the home row, albeit being accessed through a Shift combination, and the backslash/pipe symbol key, which prints keys with special applications in Unix and Linux, has been moved from an awkward position above the Enter key to beside the left Shift key.

The keys I have talked about are ones that I use relatively frequently in my time spent computing, whether it is spent on the terminal or in a programming editor, so it suits me well to have them more easily accessible. As well as that, even though most people don’t spend time in a terminal environment or programming in C or C++, the provision of the additional key negates most of the potential for ergonomic inconveniences caused by key position changes.

I can think of two places where the ergonomics of the UK keyboard layout are compromised, which when compared to the more advantageous position of five symbols I use regularly enough to warrant the changes over the US layout, and the provision of additional symbols to boot, makes it seem like a fair compromise to me. The first of these compromises is the less advantageous position of the double-quote symbol, which replaces the @ symbol on the numeral row. This makes it less comfortable to type quotation marks or to enclose strings in a number of different programming languages, and given the position of the symbol on the home row on the US layout, there is one place where the US layout is superior. The second disadvantage is that the upside-down L Enter key is more difficult to reach for touch-typers, being a further distance from the rightmost finger when one’s fingers are on the home row. As I mentioned above, though, I’ll take both of these disadvantages in exchange for the superior access to a multitude of other symbols and additional symbols on top of that.