On the bottom of your keyboard, in the lower left, there is a button that is very essential to our modern computing. Typically called the “Windows” key, this button does a variety of tasks regardless of the operating system. On Windows machines a key press will open the start menu; on Ubuntu pressing the button opens the dash. Even on Apple Mac computers, there is a “Windows”-like button in the form of “command”, which does similar tasks such as OS shortcuts and functions. Whatever popular operating system you use there is a purpose for that button.
Closeup of a modern Dell keyboard.
However the concept of a “meta” button is fairly unique, and it is certainly confusing as well. After all, why is it called a Windows key if Microsoft didn’t even make the keyboard, and why do I have to press Windows when I could be running a Linux variant? Moreover, why do buttons such as control and alternate have in-application uses as defined by the program, but the Windows key is almost always controlled by the operating system? This short write up looks at the history of keyboards pertaining to the titular extra function key, why it was implemented, and how it has become a mainstay in hardware and software. Furthermore, we will also once-and-for-all decide upon a name for the key that is ubiquitous, meaningful, and non-partisan.
History of Keyboards
As we know, the QWERTY key layout came to popularity during the era of typewriters. As technology advanced and electronic typing machines became popular, they inevitably used the same general layout. Early computers, however, had more varied functionality compared to a simple typing machine. As such they needed more keys. Throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, keyboards were custom made for a particular machine, terminal, or device. The extra keys, such as control, each were added by a different machine instance, and they had their own special purposes within that environment. No standard for keyboards existed at the time, and as such the designers added keys and changed layouts to best suit the keyboard’s intended use.
The Commodore 64 computer. Notice a CTRL and a SHIFT, as well as the logo key (Commodore Key) in the very bottom left. The C Key switched modes and offered additional shortcut keys.
One of the first interesting keyboards of note was the Knight Keyboard, a keyboard designed by a Tom Knight for use within MIT. This keyboard has a “meta” button, allowing for Emacs hotkeys and other unique functions. The Knight keyboard was influential, and it marked a point where the special keys on the keyboard started moving to their final positions.
Observe all of the unique keys that we do not have on our modern keyboards. (Press RUB OUT to reload!)
Evolving further, Tom Knight developed the Space Cadet Keyboard with a SUPER, META, and HYPER set of keys! For early programmers and computer scientists (using LISP), these keyboards were an amazing time saver. The complex mathematical characters and symbols were easily typed, as the keyboard had over 8000 possible keys with all of the modifiers available.
An insane amount of keys confused non-computer literate folk, but was a godsend for shortcuts.
Space Cadet was overkill for the average user, though. So in the mid-1980s IBM began coupling their new Model M keyboard with new computer sales. As popular as IBM was in the mid 1980s, the keyboard began catching on quickly due to the easy layout, uncomplicated interface, and rigid durability. Many typists today are still using their 30 year old Model M keyboards today.
Model M Keyboards are manufactured new today as well, and they are sometimes preferred to membrane and even other mechanical keyboards because the buckling spring mechanism is just so satisfying to type with.
You will notice that the layout is very familiar, but the absence of the Windows key is striking! Because the use of a special modifier key (besides the shift, control, and alternate key) was made popular by text-based operating systems and programs, one would gradually be introduced on keyboards until the mid 90s when Windows 95 was to be released. IBM partnered with Windows to create a “Windows standard” key layout with the Windows key in the usual place.
This Unicomp keyboard looks the most like modern devices, just with a more simple paint-job.
Windows took the functions of many of the earlier iterations, such as super or meta, and emulated them somewhat for backwards compatibility. This, coupled with the 1994 “ISO/IEC 9995 Information technology — Keyboard layouts for text and office systems” standard cemented in place a dedicated “extra” key for the bottom left of the keyboard. ISO/IEC 9995 does not *require* the use of a Windows/Command/Meta key, but it recommends its use and gives guidelines for placement. The Microsoft Natural Keyboard was the first to stick a modifier key down there with the flag on it, and the popularity of Microsoft Windows 95 ensured that most keyboard manufacturers were printing the Windows flag logo on the key as well; as such it became known as the “Windows Key”. And that is how keyboards came to their current layout, and that is why we have a “Windows” button in the bottom left.
But What is it Called?
Here is where the story gets interesting. “Windows” is, of-course, a trademark, patent, registered idea, or whatever they like to call it. Alternative operating systems would have to pay royalties or something similar if they called it a “Windows Key”, so they had to choose a different name for it. Some chose Super, others chose Meta, Apple uses Command, and now we have a situation where this single key has so many different names. Looking at the underlying technology concerning modifier keys, the situation gets much worse.
There are generally 5 “mod” keys that change the state of the keyboard input. These states are programmed into the popular operating systems too, probably as a leftover from the old days when we needed to use hyper, super, meta, or alt in different situations. In particular, mod1 refers to the alt key, mod2 and mod3 were probably for meta (which used to be alt) and hyper, and mod4 was designated for super. When you press the Windows Key now, it registers as a mod4 key press, and older systems will still interpret it as such. The X11 system can reprogram any key to mod1-5, meaning the super key can change to any key, and that key will change the state to mod1-5.
So when you look at the facts, meta, super, hyper, and Windows are all *different* buttons altogether. We cannot call it any of them, because it might work for one system, but not for all. Furthermore, some operating systems knowingly mark the key as wrong for constancy and usability purposes, and now the entire world is confused about what to call the key. On almost all keyboards, the button will have a Windows flag, but we cannot call it Windows in other operating systems. Because that button’s activation calls a mod4 event, I believe it should be called and labeled as such. Technically it should most likely be called the “super” key, mod4 is the most non-partisan implementation of the button. Plus, it would be very interesting to look down and see the proper names of keys, such as mod1 and mod4. Finally, as a last note, the special key is not even needed, because it can be duplicated by pressing ctrl+esc at the same time.
Conclusively, the strange way keyboards were developed led to the use of mod keys that changed a keyboard’s state, thus opening up new button combinations and uses. Windows and IBM sought to simplify it, popularizing the Windows Key. The software aspect of many operating systems meant that 5 mod keys still existed, even though only 2 mod buttons are the norm on contemporary keyboards. Different names, drawn from the old names the keys had (alongside their functions), were applied to the Windows key, and alt was properly named alt. Some systems refer to the special key as super, meta, hyper, windows, or command, but almost all of them translate this key to mod4 on the software-side. So the correct name for the key is impossible to gather, because it performs the functions of many different keys from the past. And if you are using Windows or Mac OSX, the other mod keys are not used at all. There is no solution to our problem, because we have just universally accepted that our keyboards have a special key at the bottom, and that the key should perform “OS”-like functions. When it all comes down to it, a button is a button, and buttons are named by the operating system. Windows tells us we press Windows, Mac OSX tells us we press command, and Ubuntu tells us we press Super. *If you must* use a non-partisan name, mod4 is probably your best bet. Thank you for joining us on this frustrating journey into the special OS key. Maybe in the future there will be a new keyboard standard revision that clarifies the whole mess. And also maybe we will do away with that silly [hamburger button](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamburger_button).
Bonus note: Thomas started developing his idea of a perfect keyboard with differentiated meta and super buttons.
Keyboards are stupid.
Sources and further reading: