August 25, 2007

Once again a Sun keyboard, at last!

Alllllmost. When I started out at Brown, the standard computer in use throughout the CS department was the Sun Ultra, with a good old-fashioned Sun keyboard. Some of the keys were in a slightly different location relative to the better-known PC layouts, and as I thought about it, I noticed that it was a lot better. The escape key was immediately to the left of the 1, which made it less of a stretch—and as a vi user that used it all the time, that was a big improvement. The control key was immediately to the left of the A, and again, for users of anything other than a Mac, the Control key is likely to get considerably more use than the caps lock (which is what is in that location on virtually all Mac and PC keyboards, and even Sun has come over to the dark side on this one). And the backspace key was immediately above the enter key, again bringing a more commonly-used key closer than a less-used one (in this case the backslash).

When we migrated to Linux, we got PC keyboards, which I promptly remapped to be like the old Sun keyboards, which were laid out better. Unfortunately, where the Suns had two keys (backquote and backslash), PC keyboards have a single, long backspace key. So the backquote key (and its shifted version, tilde) had to be dealt with—I stuck them on shift-Tab and shift-Esc respectively (which actually put the tilde back where the keyboard has it marked). It wasn't my Sun keyboard, but it was a reasonable facsimile thereof.

I had a problem when I tried to do the same thing on my Mac, though. My remappings involved three different kinds of keys—normal, special, and modifier—and no single remapping tool could deal with all three. On the Linux boxen I had just rebound the keys using xmodmap, a classic X tool, and this was able to handle most of it: but only for X apps, and it couldn't do caps lock. Indeed, caps lock was a special problem, because for a long time, Mac keyboards treated that key differently at the hardware level, with keypresses sending KeyDown and KeyUp events alternately, rather than both for each keypress. I tried a tool called uControl to remap caps lock, and I can't remember if it ever worked, but I know it eventually had problems with lapsing into locked control keys, so I had to abandon it.

Just a few weeks ago I was poking around in the Control Panels, and discovered that 10.4 introduced a new feature in the Keyboard panel: it lets me remap modifier keys at the OS level. So now I have my beloved ergonomic control key!

And that inspired me to go hunting for apps to remap the other keys. It'd been a long time and several OS upgrades since I'd last done so, and it was quite possible that what had been impossible was now possible. Just so! I found a little app called Ukelele (Unicode Keyboard Layout Editor), which can't handle modifiers but can handle both normal and special keys. Specifically, it lets me create a keylayout file, just like all the national keyboard layouts available in the International menu, which theoretically all apps should obey.

In practice, some apps, including a few of Apple's, trap for things like delete at a lower level than they're supposed to, and so the remapping isn't 100% successful. It's asymmetric, though: the keyboard's delete key, which I've remapped to backslash (and pipe), is sometimes trapped as delete. However, the keyboard's backslash key, which I've remapped to delete, is also caught as a delete. The backquote and tilde remapping seem to work everywhere. What that means is, in a behaving application, I get my remapping, and in a misbehaving app, I can't access backslash or pipe. Happily, I only ever type those when I'm coding, which I do inside X11, which behaves. And my better backspace key works everywhere afaict.

Are you a Sun keyboard aficionado who uses Macs? This file should work under any system version since 10.2; just put it inside ~/Library/Keyboard Layouts, and log out and log in again. You should then be able to access it (as "SunLike US") from the Input Menu tab of the International control panel (you'll want to also select the "Use one input source for all documents" radio button).

In my investigating I also ran across an interface for rebinding Control-key combinations to input field actions that are supposed to be universal across all Mac apps, just by making a DefaultKeyBinding.dict file—so I might actually be able to get even more Unixy functionality up and running soon. Woo!

"What makes such briefings disappointing is partly that they often run on far too long and are full of words like 'dread' and 'imbue', and either take themselves very seriously or, which is worse, don't." --Graham Nelson

Posted by blahedo at 9:37pm on 25 Aug 2007
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