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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