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Mac 101: A Short(cut) History of the Command Key

Are you or someone you know a recent convert from PC to Mac? Has the single most difficult thing to deal with been breaking your old keyboard shortcut habits? This seems to be one of the hardest parts of switching from one platform to the other. Maybe understanding why the differences exist will help you be more patient when adjusting to them.

Why Are Apple and Microsoft Keyboards So Different?

The disparity is a little deeper than a simple case of Apple (s aapl) and Microsoft (s msft) just not being able to get along. It’s actually rooted in the core of Apple’s engineering principles of thinking things through and getting it right the first time. Apple started from a proven and well accepted principle, whereas Microsoft saw value in a ‘feature’, didn’t bother to understand it, and screwed it up. Human nature being what it is, since more people grew up PC than Mac, PC had it “right”, and Mac had it “wrong.”

TeletypeSystemControlling Teletype Machines

The use of control key sequences date back to teletype systems, where certain commands were mapped into the American Standard Code for Information Interchange
(ASCII) character set. Teletype systems basically replaced the telegraph and were used to send typed messages over long distances. The ASCII was created in part to standardize the communication protocols between teletype machines. These teletype systems would send commands to control non-printing functions like movement of the printing cartridge.

This is where the “control” key originally got its name, since it controlled the mechanics of the machine it was sending instructions to. By holding down the control key when striking another character on the keyboard, you actually applied a sort of offset to the ASCII code, sending a different signal and producing an effect not related to actual typing.

Communicating to Unix Computers

Enter the age of computers. Early computer input worked in a very similar way as two teletype systems communicating with one another. In fact, the protocol that Unix uses to map keyboards as devices comes from teletype. Modern day Macs running OS X are based on Unix, and therefore, still support this paradigm. The Terminal application found in Utilities could actually be considered a software version of an old teletype system, sending commands to the computer to be executed.

The exact same control sequences used in early Unix-based systems are still supported on modern Macs.  The original Control+C keyboard sequence once used to stop teletype printing is being used today by the Terminal Application to instruct the computer to cancel or stop an operation. Apple has chosen to maintain the integrity of its systems by choosing not to change the way the control key works.

AppleCommandKeyOpen Apple on a Swedish Campground

The command key, on the other hand, is an Apple original. Given that Apple was into selling hardware, and not just licensing software, adding a key to the keyboard was just part of the engineering process when creating new products.

The existence of an additional command key on Apple hardware dates back to the original Apple IIe. The first Macintosh computers also had a need to create specialized command key sequences and kept the Apple key.

Mapping menu functions to keyboard shortcuts were emphasized in part because the graphical interface of the Macintosh could actually display complex images like the Apple Logo on screen.

Rather than devalue the brand image by littering the menu system with an orchard of Apple logos all over the place, the Apple Icon was replaced by a symbol used in Sweden to indicate an interesting feature at a campground.  Thus the Command Key as we know it today was born.

MicrosoftCommandKeyDisk-Based, not Terminal-Based Operating System

At the same time, Microsoft was growing up from its roots on DOS. Microsoft was not in the business of manufacturing and selling hardware, and had to deal with what was readily available on the market. Since early PC keyboards were born from older terminal based computer keyboards, and those keyboards have origins rooted in teletype systems, there was an extra control key just waiting for a disk-based OS to abuse.

Almost every MS-DOS application had a different mapping of keyboard sequences for common functions like open, close, cut, copy and paste.  And they all abused the control key. When Windows first came around, Microsoft also wanted to map the menu actions to keyboard shortcuts in exactly the same way that Apple did. Rather than add a new key as Apple did, the control key was adopted as Microsoft’s command key, and Windows strong-armed its software vendors to follow the new shortcut convention.

It wasn’t until Windows 95 that Microsoft decided that it really needed its own true command key, but by that time, it was too late, and users had already formed habits and burned their favorite shortcuts into their brains.

Online Keyboard Mapping Resources

Now that you know why the two operating systems look at keyboards differently, how do you adjust smoothly?  There are actually some great online resources from both Apple and Microsoft that map all of the keyboard shortcuts and even show some of the PC to Mac equivalents. It may take keeping a browser window open with these resources on hand for a while, but trust me, you’ll get there, and you’ll be glad you did.

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13 Responses to “Mac 101: A Short(cut) History of the Command Key”

  1. As a Windows-to-Mac switcher it was a minor annoyance to re-train my brain from the Ctrl-based shortcuts to the Cmd-based ones. They essentially do the same thing.

    If it proves too difficult a task you can always remap the keys using a utility like DoubleCommand or Keyboard Maestro.

    @KsbjA don’t forget the pretty drop-shadows you get when taking a screenshot on the Mac.

  2. I hate the fact that Windows users are sometimes ignorant about history. I’m not saying they all are, but some are unwilling to accept the fact that certain things just works better with a Mac and that it is actually more standards conforming.

  3. I like how the command key works with almost every letter and every function. Cmd + Q to quit an app (Microsoft went completely crazy with Alt + F4 – seriously, what were they thinking?!), Cmd + W to close a window (works on Windows with the Ctrl key, but it’s next to the quit key, so way better on Mac OS), and another of my Mac-only favorites, Cmd + ‘,’ to open the application’s preferences window. Cut, copy, paste, undo, redo are just widely accepted standards (which, I’m pretty sure, originate from Apple).

  4. Hurt Fingers

    There is one absolutely crucial reason why the Command key is much better than the Control key:

    The Command key is next to the space bar, so it is used by pivoting a thumb.
    The Control key is below the Shift key, so it is used by stretching a little finger.

    This makes ALL the difference.

  5. Cold Water

    Neither company has it completely right.

    The Mac’s command key is consistently applied, and it doesn’t mess things up in the terminal, but you have to admit the shortcuts don’t always make sense (I’m looking at you, screenshot shortcuts!)

    The nice thing with Windows is that Ctrl is specific to the running application, and Win/Command to the shell. Of course it took 15 years to get more than one or two useful shortcuts out of the latter…

    • On the other hand, Mac OS at least has screenshot shortcut. And no, PrntScrn, Win + R, mspaint, Enter, Ctrl + V, Alt + F4, Enter, Enter is not a screenshot shortcut. (Yes, I’m not exaggerating, that’s how you take and save a screenshot on Windows using only the keyboard, but it’s the same procedure with a mouse as well.)

      Agreed about the Windows part on all points.

  6. When explaining a windows user how to use a program, I always say “press cmd + C to copy” and they would be like “What?”

    I get too use to macs keyboard and always getting angry when it does not copy text when am on windows. Its actually CTRL + C on windows to copy.