Brittany Matter’s home desk features a mouse, keyboard, and number pad included with the discontinued Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop. She puts her keyboard in her backpack when she travels because she likes to be comfortable while working.
If Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a memo in January that there would be “changes to our hardware portfolio,” and the news was troubling to people like Brittany Mather.
A freelance writer from Olympia, Washington, Mather is a fan of Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboard, which the company first started selling nearly 30 years ago. She even took a keyboard and mouse with her when she went to Hawaii for a few days earlier this month.
Nadella’s statement spelled the end for her favorite accessory.
“Have you ever experienced fainting symptoms?” The case said in an interview. “It’s a pain that creeps up the back of my head. It prevents you from moving your neck left and right, and then your mobility is completely reduced. It’s the pain I’ve experienced when my mouse and keyboard aren’t ergonomic.”
Keyboards have never been a huge business for Microsoft, which rose to prominence with its ubiquitous PC software and then made a massive foray into gaming with the Xbox. Much of Microsoft’s business now comes from the use of its cloud services by businesses, schools and government agencies.
But since entering the keyboard business in 1994 – four years earlier than the current market leader Logitech — Microsoft has attracted legions of fans for its ergonomic offerings. While the company will continue to make keyboards, it is moving away from better-known ergonomic products as part of a broader effort to prioritize growth categories.
The beige-colored Microsoft Natural Keyboard divides the letter keys into two groups, so that a typist’s left hand will lean slightly to the right, and vice versa. It had Windows keys on either side of the space bar.
“It was really nice to use,” said Jeff Atwood, co-founder of the programming Q&A site Stack Overflow. “It looked cool. You could see they were trying to do something. It wasn’t just aesthetics. It had a purpose.”
Mather discovered ergonomic keyboards about a decade ago while working at Zulily. The e-commerce company gave her an ergonomic keyboard and mouse that reduced her wrist pain.
After that she left an apple and used her laptop’s built-in keyboard. Then, four years ago, she found herself freelancing at Marvel, which wouldn’t give her equipment.
“I needed something to cost $100 or less,” Mather said.
Wirecutter, a New York Times product review website, recommended the keyboard from Microsoft. She went to Best buy and bought the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, which includes a mouse, keyboard, and a separate number pad that she could place next to the keyboard.
During the year, two keycaps popped out.
“I just kept putting them on and kind of dealt with it,” she said. “But then I remembered that I had this guarantee.”
The item was returned to Best Buy, who provided a replacement. The new set has been around ever since. And now, when she travels, Mather keeps the keyboard in her Chrome Industries backpack.
“He’s kind of tall, so he fits in there,” she said.
Keyboard for mother and son
When the Microsoft Natural Keyboard hit the market, it caught the attention of Matt Steinhoff, who was working as a system administrator at a newspaper in Florida. People in the news have become concerned that some keyboards may cause them to experience repetitive stress injuries. Steinhoff thought the Microsoft keyboard was weird, but he bought it anyway after finding a coupon for it.
“It’s been a learning curve,” Steinhoff said. “I often got strange looks. But once I got used to it, I got comfortable. It was logical that the wrists were in a better position, it was quite logical.’
Steinhoff has become an evangelist for the product. In 1998, he changed the paper and bought a new model, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite. His mother, a retired librarian in West Palm Beach, Florida, also received one.
Lila Steinhoff, a retired accountant, still uses the 1998 Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite.
However, the Natural Keyboard Elite was not a universally loved product.
The arrow keys were arranged in the shape of a diamond. Microsoft designed them this way because some people complained that the previous keyboard took up too much desk space, said Hugh McLoone, who was a senior user experience researcher at the company.
However, the updated layout made it “impossible to play a spreadsheet,” Steinhoff said. “They’re just not in the right position.”
To critics of the Diamond Arrow cluster, McLoone said: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
In 2005, Steinhoff started a new job. It received the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, which returned the arrow keys to a more traditional inverted T orientation.
McLoone worked on the design of the Model 4000 for seven years.
The new keyboard had a taller ledge in the middle, and some keys were placed inward and upward so that users didn’t have to reach their fingers as far. It wasn’t just for comfort. McLoone was also concerned with performance and appeal.
The study found that 22 out of 23 people preferred the geometry of the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 over the older Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro. According to Circana, it has become the best-selling aftermarket wired keyboard in the US.
Software developer Marco Arment recommended it. Paul Graham, co-founder of Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator, was photographed using it.
“I’m thrilled!” Atwood wrote on her Coding Horror blog after buying one.
Steinhoff used theirs for 11 years. The replacement continued for another six years. In 2022, he bought a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard for his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and another one when he worked at a client’s office.
From top to bottom, Matt Steinhoff’s home collection includes the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard he uses every day, a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000 that someone gave him, and his old Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 that he keeps as a backup.
Neither model was ideal for Steinhoff, but he appreciates their affordability. And relying on them all these years may have been a kind of prevention. His brother recently had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
“I certainly put it off when I had the ergonomic keyboard,” he said.
As for his mother’s keyboard, the Steinhoff family knows it can’t be touched, even though they upgrade her computer every 10 years or so.
“I really, really, really like my keyboard,” she wrote in an email to her son. – No, you can’t.
Many software developers at Microsoft like them, too, Eddie Adams, the company’s director of ergonomics, said in a 2022 interview.
“I think it’s because people are used to it,” she said.
A volatile market
Atwood said he understands why Microsoft decided to leave the market after so many years. First, keyboards have become very popular, and people are posting videos of themselves assembling them on social media. In the 1990s, the average person buying a PC used only the keyboard that came with it.
On Atwood’s desk in his home in Berkeley, California, is a rainbow keyboard that someone made for him.
“The industry is mature and they have other things they want to focus on,” said Atwood, who announced in 2013 that he was collaborating with WASD Keyboards on a lightweight mechanical keyboard called Code. “They really deserve a lot of credit for the hardware. It’s been underrated in my opinion. They’ve really pushed things forward.”
A Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC in an email that the company is “focusing on its portfolio of Windows PC accessories under the Surface brand.”
McLoone owns a Microsoft Wireless Comfort Desktop 5050, which uses the gorgeous keyboard design he introduced before leaving Microsoft in 2009. The keys are set up to promote proper posture, with larger keys in the middle. Microsoft’s modern Sculpt Comfort Desktop kit includes a keyboard in a similar style.
The keyboard is out of stock on Microsoft’s website, though it remains available on Amazon. One person in Japan bought 10 on Amazon after hearing the news that Microsoft would be discontinuing the product.
What does McLoone suggest?
“I don’t know. Buy the next best thing. Stock up on it,” said McLoone, who now works as a senior manager of user experience research at T-Mobile.
Other versions of the old Microsoft keyboards are also out of stock, but for now they can be found somewhere online.
Microsoft still sells the Surface Ergonomic Keyboard, which was released in 2016. While it’s no longer available on the company’s website, it “remains part of our line of Surface-branded PC accessories,” a company spokesperson said. The model costs $129.99 on Amazon, double the price of Microsoft’s discontinued ergonomic keyboard.
Other companies, including Logitech, still make ergonomic keyboards. But this is of little comfort to people like Materia.
“I am so devastated,” Mather wrote in an email. “I’ll have to buy another set as a spare before they stop selling them.”
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