My favorite hardware company sells software and it based in Redmond.

Open Sauce May 2005

I’m still using the wireless keyboard I bought back in early 2005, but to be honest is feels downright cheezy when I compare it to the Apple keyboards I’ve been using lately. Not so much that the Microsoft ergonomic keyboard isn’t well-designed, but it feels very plastic-y compared to the Cupertino keyboards.

Microsoft rocks!

What? Something nice to say about Microsoft? Yes. I needn’t like or use Windows or Office or Outlook or Internet Exploder (er, Explorer) or any other of their proprietary offerings, but if you’re looking to buy a quality ergonomic keyboard at the local big box or technology store, Microsoft is the only game in town.

When repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome loom, you’ve got to nip them in the bud with a properly adjusted chair, a keyboard tray to properly position your keyboard, a good mouse (I prefer trackballs) and an ergonomic keyboard. I went through it a few years ago, and rather than gamble on undoubtedly better but expensive mail-order keyboards, my choice at retail was between ultra-cheap no-names and Microsoft’s “Natural”s, with the Natural Keyboard Pro being the pick of the litter (avoid the cheesy, cheaper but oddly-laid out Natural Keyboard Elite at all costs).

The corded Microsoft keyboard I bought back then served me well and would still be on my desk if my son Zoom (a.k.a. “The Terminator”) hadn’t destroyed the “&” key one snowy afternoon. I’d hoped to use that keyboard until I retired, especially since I rarely see the wired version “Pro” keyboard in stores anymore. You’ve got to have the
ampersand, so I knew it was time to face my fear of wireless keyboards and find a Linux-compatible one.

I scooped a Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop Pro v2.0 package (including a mouse with “Tilt-wheel for side-to-side scrolling”) and rushed home to try it.

The “Getting Started” booklet opened ominously: “Important! Install the Software”; then, I’ll have to restart the computer “if prompted to do so” (twice, maybe, for a Mac). Only then, I’m told, can I “Insert the Batteries”, plug it in and test it out.

“How could a Microsoft wireless product possibly work with Linux?” I can hear you asking. The answer is “Nanny nanny boo boo. It works as well as the wired version, maybe better.” I plugged it in and it worked; SUSE Linux even automatically and correctly auto-detected it.

Granted, I can’t use any of the “special” keys Microsoft grafts onto their keyboards, but it’s easy enough to see what signals those keys emit when pressed (using the “showkey -s” from a console session). Remapping them to do something useful within Linux would be more complicated, but it’s not something I’m even remotely interested in spending time on since there are plenty of keys that actually do work.

Linux rocks at automatic hardware detection and installation. I’ve collected dozens of hardware driver CDs for everything from video and audio cards to hard drives to trackballs, joysticks, and yes, keyboards, and never once have I suffered from not installing the software. It all works just great, and I don’t even even have to restart the system to get things going.

Maybe I don’t upgrade or change hardware on my system every day or even every week, but I do it often enough for me to be really happy about it all happening automatically, quickly, and correctly, without annoying system restarts.

Why don’t hardware manufacturers include Linux software with their products? Sometimes they do, but they usually get it wrong one way or another. For example, by making their drivers binary-only, closed source affairs, or by not making the drivers portable across CPU platforms. Invariably, the vendors just aren’t as good or as fast at writing reliable drivers as the open source community itself.

As for keyboards, I’m sure there are better ones than Microsoft’s, but they can’t seem to get their product into the retail channel. I’m not going to gamble $300 on a keyboard that I can’t at touch before I buy, no matter how much it promises to change my life. Microsoft delivers a quality product into half a dozen different major retailers within a 5-mile radius of my home, and I’m delighted to use their ergonomically correct keyboard.

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