Backspace key; Computer Keyboard Key Label's Influence on Key Purpose

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Backspace key; Computer Keyboard Key Label's Influence on Key Purpose

Xah Lee, 2011-05-29

In late 2000s, When i first learned about the Backspace Key in Internet Explorer for going to previously viewed page, my thought is: “What a Microsoft abomination!” — there's nothing logical about it. However, i found that it's simply very convenient, practical. Especially so if you don't have 5-button mouse with dedicated backward/forward buttons. The alternative, such as 【Alt+】 or 【Cmd+[】 in Linux and Mac, are simply not as convenient. They require 2 keys, and going to the previous page is so frequently needed. In late 2000s, Apple's Safari also adopted this Backspace key usage. But am surprised today, that in Firefox on Linux, this still isn't done.

Key Label's Influence on The Key's Purpose

I also learned, in the past few years, that the label, wording, on a key, has significant influence on how the key is being adopted by software. One major example is Apple vs PC keyboards. (See: Difference Between Apple and PC keyboards.) For many keys, they send the same scancode, however, they are labeled differently.

One such example is the Backspace key. On Apple keyboard, that key is labeled Delete. On PC, the Backspace got adopted for “going back” in many applications (besides Internet Explorer, it's also used in Explorer (the desktop) for going to the previously viewed folder, and in image viewers for previous image.) Yet, that key is never used for anything for delete, except in text editing (again, as “going backspace”, not necessarily delete, depending on whether you have overwrite mode on).

On Mac, that key is often used for deleting things. For example, to move a file to trash is Cmd plus that key. To empty trash is Cmd+Shift and that key. And, that key is never used for “going back” purposes.

Backspace Insert PrtScn keys

PC keyboard's keys. The “Backspace ⟵” is labeled “delete” on Apple keyboards. The Delete key is labeled “delete⌦” on Apple. The PrtScn/SysRq, ScrLk, Pause/Break is F13 F14 F15 on Apple's keyboards.

Also related is that, there's a Delete in the Home/End key cluster (aka “forward delete”, sometimes labeled as “Del”, “⌦”). On Windows, because there's no other key labeled “delete”, so that key is the delete. For example, in Explorer, you can press that to move items to trash. On Apple keyboard, since there's already a delete key (the Backspace), so this forward delete key is almost never used in the past 20 years and still not used much. It isn't even support in many text editors. In many text editors, to forward delete you might need to press Shift+Backspace. Often, Apple keyboard simply don't have the home/end key cluster. See Wikipedia here Apple keyboard for photos of Apple keyboard thru history. (See also: Apple Computer Keyboards Review.)

Another such example is the PrtScn/SysRq key. That key has a long history back to 1970s. The original function of these keys are no longer applicable in modern computers. So, in Windows, it's used for screenshot (copying the screen to clipboard), because the word “PrtScn” of that key is quite suitable. However, on Apple keyboard, those obsolete Prt/Scn/SysRq, ScrLk, Pause/Break, was never there. In some full Apple keyboard, they have keys labeled F13, F14, F15 instead. (I believe they send the same scancode as PrtScn, ScrLk, Pause on PC keyboards.). On a Mac, screenshot is done by the combination 【Cmd+Shift+3】, which seems quite arbitrary.

Curiously, unicode has a PRINT SCREEN SYMBOL (U+2399). (See: Computing Symbols in Unicode)

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