THE END IS NIGH. That’s the message Google sent last week when it unveiled its new laptop, the Google Cr-48 notebook. The computer has all kinds of new features—Chrome OS, a simplified design, and free broadband. But perhaps the boldest change is Google’s decision to ditch the Caps Lock key. In its place is a Search button, denoted with the image of a magnifying glass. Users can still designate the search key as the Caps Lock—they just have to take the time to change a few settings. But the default is that if you want capital letters, you have to hold down Shift.
What’s most shocking about Google’s announcement isn’t that it’s scrapping Caps Lock—it’s that the button has lasted this long. Caps Lock originated with typewriters. The first typewriter to include both upper- and lowercase letters was the Remington No. 2, introduced in 1878. (Before that, typewriters printed only in uppercase. Stop shouting at me, writers of the 19th century!) Uppercase letters were typed by holding down a “shift” key that would literally shift the carriage so that a different part of the type bar—the part on which a reverse uppercase letter was printed—would hit the ribbon. The problem was, it was hard to hold down the shift key for more than a few letters. So typewriter manufacturers added a “Shift Lock” button that would keep the carriage elevated until the button was released. It was a useful innovation: Typewriters didn’t have options for italics or bold or underlining, so capitalization was the only way to emphasize words.
The first computers didn’t have “Shift” keys at all since all text was uppercase anyway. But when mass-market personal computers like the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800 were introduced in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, manufacturers tried to make them as similar to typewriters as possible. Consumers were wary of the new machines, so familiarity was important. That meant including a “Shift Lock” or a “Caps Lock” for old time’s sake. (There is a difference: Shift Lock prints the secondary symbols on all keys, like the % and # signs, whereas Caps Lock only capitalizes letters.)
In those early years, the Caps Lock key had no fixed position. Some manufacturers put it on the right side of the keyboard. Others put it in the lower left, below the Shift key. It wasn’t until IBM adopted the 101/102-key Model M keyboard in 1984 that Caps Lock became semi-permanently ensconced in its current location above the left Shift key. (The International Standards Organization certified that keyboard design in 1994.) Early Caps Lock keys also stayed down when you pushed them down; push them again, and they’d pop back up. To cut costs, companies switched to regular spring buttons with an LED that lit up when Caps Lock was engaged.
Caps Lock had its uses back in the olden days. Some of the earliest computers were business machines, used to input product keys and other strings of letters and numbers that often included all caps. Some of the first programming languages, like FORTRAN and Basic, were composed entirely in caps. (They didn’t always require Caps Lock, mind you—a lowercase a would often automatically show up as A.)
By the 21st century, Caps Lock had become an outdated scourge. Modern-day personal computing—surfing the Web, writing school papers, chatting online—doesn’t require nearly as much capitalization. As of 2010, the most-common Caps Lock users are enraged Internet commenters and the computer-illiterate elderly. The key’s location makes it a frequent target for an aCCIDENTAL STRIKE when your pinky reaches for the “a.” Worst of all, Caps Lock occupies prime real estate that could be deeded to a more useful key, like Control or even a second Enter button. In 2006, Belgian computer programmer Pieter Hintjen launched the “Caps Off” campaign to persuade hardware manufacturers to abandon the key. Their slogan: “STOP SHOUTING!” Many online publications ban comments that are typed in all caps. Some people pry the offending key right off their keyboards in protest.
So why has Caps Lock stuck around so long? The simplest explanation is technological inertia. Computer companies have long been obsessed with reverse compatibility, or the ability of any new product to support old software. People are more likely to buy a new computer, the thinking goes, if they can still access their old files and don’t have to change their habits. As a result, computers have almost always been additive: more keys, more programs, more functions. That was the logic behind carrying over the Caps Lock key from typewriters to personal computers, and every new keyboard designer has probably thought the same thing: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
And, yes, Caps Lock does have its merits. There’s no question that capital letters do a better job EMPHASIZING WORDS than bold or italics. (See what I mean?) It’s also useful for HTML and legal documents and people who can’t see very well. The gaming world offers another niche use: If the Shift button makes your character run, you can sometimes use Caps Lock to make him run forever. And without Caps Lock, how could Kanye West fully express himself? (Sample tweet: “JUST GOT TO LONDON!!! YOU KNOW I HAD TO PUT MY CAPS LOCK ON! I DON’T TYPE IN CAPS CAUSE I’M MAD I TYPE IN CAPS CAUSE I’M LAZY!!!”)
Nor is Caps Lock the only key deserving of criticism. The function keys (F1 to F12) are useless to the average user. Scroll Lock dates back to DOS, when you needed to use the arrow keys to scroll up and down a screen. The Pause and Break keys, vestiges of the days of teletype, are used almost exclusively by programmers. Even Google’s new Search button could get annoying. At least when you accidentally hit Caps Lock, it merely changes the text. If you hit Search by mistake, it opens a whole new browser tab.
Will scrapping Caps Lock really increase civility on the Web, as one Google employee told Business Insider? Doubtful. If someone wants to blast out their reaction to a YouTube video in all caps, they still can. (The easiest way is to highlight any normal text and hit Shift-F3. So, I guess those function keys aren’t entirely useless.) Plus, you can also say nasty things in lowercase.
More likely, Google’s decision to ditch the pesky key is one more step in the decline of casing itself. As e-mail and texting have become primary forms of communication, expectations of proper spelling and grammar have diminished. Capital letters aren’t necessary to get your point across—why bother with Shift, let alone Caps Lock?
“perhaps the day will come when caps will be out of favor and will be mere embellishments,” writes former George Mason University technology professor Virginia Montecino in a caps-less e-mail. “i see an overall simplification of text, in a world in which more people communicate in a written form than any previous generation, crossing boundaries of age, gender, nationality, geographic borders, ideologies.”
Google eliminated Caps Lock in order to simplify the keyboard. They may be simplifying the language, too. Does Google intend to overhaul English itself? The keyboard on the new Cr-48 notebook offers a hint: The letters are all in lowercase.