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Author Topic: Apple does it again - this time, they re-invent the context-sensitive F-key  (Read 813 times)

ital2

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Currently, I had the occasion to admire the new Apple touch-bar; new Mac Pro's had it and started with about 2,000€, the 2016 models came without it (but with F-keys instead) and startet around 300€ less.

Apple certainly has had it patented, but they are re-inventing the wheel again (they did it with the iPad - there had been a mobile touch-screen device before by Microsoft but which was too bad, too heavy and so on), and somewhere I read "this software is touch-bar ready" indeed, while in fact there had been DOS programs with context-sensitive F-key assignments, or in short, context-sensitive F-keys.

It's very difficult to find such context-sensitive F-keys in today's Windows software, I cannot think of a single one at this moment, and I think I've read somewhere some discussion of it coming in the way of the user, being unspecific, being error-prone and all that; I doubt this, but cannot speak from experience; it's very interesting that Apple now does exactly that thing, and I suppose that now that it comes from Apple, the old criticism will be very subdued since openly hating it would be "Apple-hating" this time; as said, I'm in favor of it, I'm just hoping that it makes its way into Windows programs, too!

I say it's not different from the old thing, you will answer that's not true. So to start, here's a good introduction: http://appleinsider....h-id-for-macbook-pro

First, it replaces the F-keys, it doesn't come on top of it, but even if it did, it wouldn't make any difference. The current assignment of the (virtual) "key" (tap on the touch-bar) is indicated by changing lettering there, but this means - within the frame of the criticism that it's not unambiguous and error-prone - that you first must read what's available, or at least check that there it's the function you expect to be there, and then only you can move your finger there in order to activate the function, since before, your finger would cover the lettering; this takes a moment of time.

The touch-bar isn't only for traditional functions, but also for text expansion, which is probably a very good thing; since the suggestions are of different length though, I suppose that this means you cannot count on suggestion 1 being on a certain place of the touch-bar, suggestion 2 being on a certain other, defined place there, and so on, but that you first must read what is where, and then tap there, so the moment of time, referred-to above and needed for reading before tapping probably cannot be shortened or avoided.

How did those DOS programs convey the info? By using the bottom "line" of the screen in order to display 3x4 F-key symbols there, together with their current meaning, here's an example from wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia...le:GW-BASIC_3.23.png - note that the symbols are of different length and thus could have contained text expansion suggestions, had that concept been already invented at the time. Here's another example, even more basic where they do without even the symbols but just do a list: http://ece.wpi.edu/~...es/EE2801/Labs/tasm/ (both screenshots, by scrolling down).

Note that those screen symbols/texts are readable from the moment on the function is available (as is touch-bar lettering), but then even up to the moment you will have pressed the respective F-key, so there is available (but not forced-upon-you) a possible and wanted overlapping of checking time ("yes, it's well the function I expect") and time for moving your finger to the F-key in question, so at least for functions where you just check and don't need to really inform yourself anymore (learning phase), it's bound to be speedier than the touch-bar variant.

It's evident that in order to be speedy, the F-keys must be grouped on the screen (3x4) which in my 2 DOS examples above they were not, but that was 35 years ago (they were not for 3x4 but for 10 F-keys in 2x5 rows to the left of the keyboard); also, it's understood that the touch-bar has quite high resolution, and that your screen also should have quite high resolution in order to brilliantly display 12 different texts in 3 groups and in one single line, but whenever that condition is given, the F-key-plus-screen-display should be speedier than Apple's touch-bar, at the very least for often-used functions, since F-keys always are at the same position, while the relevant function on the touch-bar is not, necessarily, or at least the boundaries of the functions are not that distinct as with physical F-keys, so at least some visual check, before moving your finger, is needed for the touch-bar command, while for F-keys it is not.

So it seems that the touch-bar is just another eye-catcher - yes, it's cute when you look at it in the store -, but its full functionality should be replicated, both in the Mac and the Windows system, by physical F-keys plus visual indicators on the screen; 3x4-groups give immediate indication which F-key to press, even without looking out for their respective number, "counting" them or otherwise. Also, I doubt very much that the touch-bar of a tiny-and-cute MacBook Pro will present more than 12 different functions at the same time; if it really does, this will sharply rise the time for reading/identifying the correct function, so that could not be regarded as an advantage at all - the same is true for big screens where the readability then is much better, but the "findability" will not rise accordingly.

As for the old criticism that it's not explicit: First, now it's Apple which re-introduces the system, so it's above "hating" but has to be accepted as anything else that Apple pushes into the market. Second, bear in mind that it'll spare you, to the extend of the application of this system, both to have to remember weird key combinations, and to then press them (hoping you'll press the right one). Third, bear in mind that you always have the "help file" before your eyes, and that even if you lose time by needing to read the lettering, you'll quickly find the correct command, while in the alternative of dozens of multi-key combinations (Shift-Alt-Something and all that) you do not have the help on-screen but you will have to look up the right key combination elsewhere, in some file or some brochure.

Fourth, bear in mind that it's perfectly possible to allocate standard functions (F3=search again) to their standard keys (F3 here), and that there will not necessarily be a mix-up of it all; this will depend on the courtesy of the developers, and in order to have users accept their software, they will have big interest in observing standards, like they now have in observing menu standards or ribbon standards; we all tend to discard software wherever possible when they don't observe standards. Also, it's possible for example to assign some 4 keys, F1-F4, for functions which are available from everywhere, while only F5-F12 may be context-sensitive.

Whatever you think of my endorsement of that Apple re-invention, it's obvious that its functionally better variant, F-keys plus 3x4-groups in bottom screen "line", should be made available in general, for Mac*, Windows, Linux.

*: The irony is, Mac developers who sell their software as "touch-bar-ready" will probably not adopt it to F-keys since that would ask for some hours' work, and "modern" Macs, as said, don't have F-keys anymore (like, they told me, Macs do without any mouse keys except one) - but that's no reason for not making the context-sensitivity paradigm available again for pc and elsewhere where Apple cannot discard the F-keys. Since it has always been there, even dormant, I doubt Apple got the whole concept patented (perhaps for text expansion? but even that should be available on F-keys, Apple re-inventions notwithstanding).


EDIT:

And bear in mind the traditional key combinations (Alt-F4 for example) would remain available, and, depending on the agenda of the developer in question, even ALL possible key combinations could remain available, even re-assignable by the user, as we know it from many a software today, as alternatives, so a given function would be some key combination OR some context-sensitive F-key, at your choice.

You would, in theory only, "lose", in my concept above, 8 F-keys out of 12, BUT what are those functions currently which you really need to be available from anywhere in a given application? In reality, those F-keys are dormant most of the time, while you effectively need other commands of which you will have to remember their weird key combinations, so in practice, do you really need F11 for "maximize" all the time, or could it be Control-F11 instead, from now on, and F11 (as F5 and following ones) being readily available according to context?

Also, what is "context"? This concept of context could be quite broad, for some keys (F5...F8), and quite narrow for the rest (F9-F12), which means that some keys would be available, for the SAME function, in EVERY situation where their function would be needed, so you would not need to muse, is it the right context here or not, or check visually, but you just press the key, you're certain that it'll work the intended way. While the "upper" F-keys are very specific, and thus have their specific meaning in very specific contexts, so for them, you may check indeed quite often if you don't use them, in that specific context, all the time. Now compare with rarely-used commands with some control-alt-something (which you won't remember from now for the next occasion 6 weeks later), and you see that the context-sensitivity paradigm is superior both for often-used functions and for rarely-used ones.
« Last Edit: May 10, 2017, 12:13 PM by ital2, Reason: Title change »

wraith808

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I personally don't want context sensitive in the way of the touch bar, and wouldn't use such a feature.  Give me a programmable mechanical keyboard, and the ability to customize the application any day.  Add to that the lack of feedback (like typing on a glass screen), and it's a swing and a miss for me.

ital2

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Yes, I could have added the "touch, not key" problem,
« Reply #2 on: May 08, 2017, 03:15 PM »
but left it out for 2 reasons: It may be taken for even more Apple hating, and I must say I have been quite impressed by screen reactivity of the iPads, while I regularly have problems with screen reactivity of other touchscreens (photocopiers and so on). I do not like touchscreens at all, but nowadays, for tiny devices, they have become unavoidable - I said it here, I'd so much prefer that HP mini pc of some years ago which now can only be had for outrageous prices, used - but, if touchscreen, then the variety of modern iPads (and I suppose, IPhones) is very, very good (real typing is possible without frequent typos / need to type a character twice).

When I played around with those Macs and the touch-bar, my main problem I immediately felt was my finger hiding the symbol/lettering, and thus the felt need to "first read, then move the finger" while my impulse was to not do it at the same time (it all was new for me), but nevertheless to do it with some overlap: begin the finger movement shortly after begin of reading, and that clearly wasn't possible.

And I remember a very strong point now against the touch-board which I had missed above:

In order to read the symbols/lettering, I had to bow my head; that's probably not an additional problem for people who type with 2 fingers; I type with 10 and stare at the screen. So a symbol/lettering list on the bottom of the screen, for me, would come without or just very light bowing of my head, while here, with the info at the height of the keys, I had to bow my head very sensibly each time, and that was very inconvenient, and time-consuming, too.

Also, the touch-board wasn't tilted in my direction (45, 30 or just 20 degrees), but it was totally flat, and that was very unpleasant for reading; for typing, I would have preferred a tilt, too (shorter reaching out for the fingers, over the number keys in-between).

Technically, it's possible to read from the screen and to read from the touch-board, but to roll my eyes down so far had been just more unpleasant, thus the bowing of my head.

Btw, it's of interest that Apple didn't implement the touch-board, additionally, for more rarely-used commands, above a line of traditional F-keys, since it's for more rarely-used (context-or-not) commands that symbols/lettering are so much more needed. Of course, that would have put the touch-board out of immediate finger reach for (frequent) text-expand use, which obviously was the reason why they did away with the F-keys.

I'd prefer TWO ranges of F-keys, but that's because my F-keys aren't context-sensitive in any application, and thus I'd so much need more of them. And it's probably also true that if applications had smartly-devised context-sensitive F-keys, most of the time, 12 of them were amply enough.

Whatever, it's Apple again where the "research" in context-sensitivity is now made, by trial-and-error of all the application developers trying to make their software "touch-board ready", and again, the Windows world is left behind, and that's annoying, all the more so since it's a multiple-occasion déjà vu.

It's them again who take now the most out of, develop fully and optimize a 30-or-more-year-old DOS invention, while, as described above, every Windows computer could do it as well as, and better than, MacBooks (since they come without F-keys now).

The touch-board being flat, they can and probably will change that; also, it's in color - but modern screens are in color too, and both the Apple touch-board and the general/Windows screen symbols/lettering for current F-key assignment could make big use of this: Smart coloring of it all (which is different from coloring optimized for "prettiness" or something) could enormously help with scope/context and kind of function, and thus with immediate, intuitive recognition and thus speeding up F-key pressing without the need to read / consciously check.
« Last Edit: May 08, 2017, 03:40 PM by ital2 »

f0dder

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The only good thing about the touchbar is being able to run NyanCat on it.

I hate the idea, and IMHO crApple is pissing on developers (and other non-sheeple consumers) by taking out the hardware Escape key - which is far more useful than the preserved caps lock.
- carpe noctem

Tuxman

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"You broke it!"

"No, we, uh, re-invented it!"

"TAKE MY MONEY!"

Apple customers...  :huh:

ital2

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Being a cat lover myself, I didn't know about the NyanCat yet, thank you, f0dder!

You are right, the Escape key is now incorporated into the Touch-Bar, I hadn't paid attention.

I feel with Apple users; Apple has a tendency to not ask their (high-paying) customers, but to decide for them, treating them for children, and that's certainly very upsetting (the mouse comes to mind, which I had mentioned above, then the little things around the iPhone/iPad (wasn't it them who replaced the battery with an internal one? then the absence of possible external memory (memory card, usb stick), then the earphones connector; did I leave out any?).

As I explained above, I welcome the idea of the re-introduction of the context-sensitive F-key - by taking away the physical F-keys, they now enforce the development of this concept.

I understand that many users aren't happy with it but this could bring real progress.

I very much hope, for Mac users, that the developers will be smart enough to adapt the concept to "older" Macs (incl. the 2016 generation), with physical F-keys (I showed above that the Touch-Bar is not necessary for it, so "Touch-Bar readiness" could perfectly work on the F-key Macs, too), and I also hope that they do it 2-ways:

Leave it all as it is now, and just display, among other things, 12 F-keys in the Touch-Bar which function exactly as do the traditional, physical ones up to now, AND do some real research into context-sensitivity and offer that, by application-wide option/toggle, also both for F-key Macs and for the Touch-Bar variety.

Thus, for both hardware variants, there would be both function-trigger paradigms, and user could chose the concept they prefer - this time, what Apple has done is NOT enforcing context-sensitivity, they just took away the physical keys, but they cannot prevent developers from also offering the traditional F-key operation.

My guess would be though that very soon, developers will excel in smart "contexting", and users will be quite happy about it, thus my complain above that, again, Windows users will be left behind.


Not necessarily, Tuxman, as far as the hardware side is concerned; as for software updates, yes, but more and more software is available upon subscription only anyway, isn't it?