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Why can’t other companies copy Lenovo’s keyboards?

I used to be a journalist and while I left that life three months now, I still spend a huge amount of time typing on a keyboard, especially on a laptop. For the past eight years I have been lucky enough to use IBM Model M keyboards on my desktop – I swear by them. IBM’s Model M keyboard isn’t the first “buckling spring” keyboard but it is easily available and cheap if you look on auction websites.

Why does the IBM Model M work so well? That buckling spring (which is an IBM patent) provides superb tactile feedback – it actually makes it easier to type. Since the 1990s, companies have taken the view that people don’t care about the quality of keyboards and bundling cheap and nasty units that not only feel terrible to type on, but simply don’t last. I have an IBM Model M from 1985 that is going strong, don’t expect the five quid keyboard with a Dell or HP to last that long.

So where’s the catch? The Model M is a noisy keyboard and newer tactile keyboards that employ Cherry MX key switches provide much of the tactile feedback without the noise. But this is all an aside really as these days I’m rarely at a desktop, rather I spend my time working off laptops. And judging by the popularity and functionality of laptops and tablets, it doesn’t take a fortune teller to work out that standalone keyboards are going to play less of a role in our lives.

To cut a long story short, if you want a decent keyboard on a laptop you pretty much have one choice – Lenovo Thinkpads. It’s not surprising that the Thinkpads, an IBM product line, had good keyboards but Lenovo was clever, it stuck to the formula when it bought IBM’s computer business.  I’ve talked to executives at companies such as Dell and they still don’t seem to understand what makes a good keyboard, the formula is pretty simple really.

  • Provide a rigid chassis for the keys. Flex is bad.
  • Key travel. More is better but obviously height restriction limits this so look at scissor action keys.
  • If all else fails, take a Lenovo Thinkpad and find out how to replicate its keyboard.

Today consumer computer companies such as Apple and Samsung are spending hundreds of millions on developing display technology on touch screen devices. This is an obvious thing, after all the screen now provides two vital input and output mechanisms. But the keyboard isn’t dead – after all the so-called two-in-one tablets are being heavily pushed. So why not invest a fraction of the amount needed to improve touch screens and provide those folks that can’t get a Lenovo machine with a decent keyboard.