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November 3, 2016

Life Without the Esc Key

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am


Back in college, I enjoyed looking at all the terminals around campus and marveling at the keyboards. Along with the keys I knew from my typewriter, I saw mystery keys such as Alt, Meta, Del, Rubout, and Esc. What were these keys? What did they do?

I took courses that used the computer, but I never took programming. (Upon reflection, that was probably a mistake.) One of those mystery keys that survives to this day is Esc, which stands for Escape.

For most programs and pretty much throughout computer history, the Esc key was the Cancel key. This relationship solidified with the introduction of graphical operating systems, but with DOS, Ctrl+C or the Break key was cancel, not Esc.

In the early days, the Esc key was a prefix key: You tap Esc and then use another key to issue a command or generate a code.

In DOS WordPerfect, Esc was the repeat key. You tap Esc and then whatever character or command you typed next was repeated.

For many text editors, the Esc key changed modes. That’s the case in the vi editor, which programmers (such as myself) still use.

Recently, the future of the Esc key has been brought into question. Apple’s new Macbook line apparently does away with not only the Esc key but all the Function keys that normally guard the top row of the traditional computer keyboard. These keys are replaced with a touch-sensitive bar that alters its appearance based on context. So perhaps the Esc key isn’t dead, but I don’t like that it was so swiftly removed.

Recall that Apple is a trend-setter when it comes to computing. They effectively did away with the 5¼-inch floppy drive when the Macintosh was introduced in 1984. Again, with the iMac, they eschewed the floppy drive entirely. And recently they stopped putting optical drives into their Macs. So does the removal of the Esc key spell doom for the key’s future?

I don’t think so. Because PC manufacturers buy their keyboards from secondary supplies, and Microsoft has kept the Esc on its Surface devices, I don’t see any desire to remove keys from the PC keyboard. In fact, the PC keyboard has added keys in recent years, specifically the Windows and Context keys.

Also, many users don’t like the touchbar. Apparently it’s difficult to see when using the laptop. So I believe the Esc key is safe . . . for now!

Trivia tidbit! A lot of early keyboards lacked keys now common because you could substitute control-key combinations for those keys. For example, Ctrl+I is the same as the Tab key. Ctrl+[ is the keyboard shortcut for the Esc key, which might still work on the new MacBook.

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