FOSS Fest Friday In these times of global connection from the guest room, sometimes we all need to deal with people from distant lands, whose names or addresses contain exotic symbols that English speakers rarely encounter: from François to František or perhaps be even ﬀoulkes.
There are many ways to do this, like going to copypastecharacter.com, finding the one you need, and, well, copying it – but the lesser known is the easiest: a Compose key.
The idea is simple: compose symbols that are not on your keyboard by entering a sequence of those that are. Need a Yen symbol? Just press Dial, then
ythen an equals sign, and presto, ¥. A cedilla looks like a comma under a letter, so that’s what you type: Dial +
c + comma gets you vs. For an uppercase version, just type uppercase
, and VS appears. It’s going well. You already have a tilde key – it’s the Spanish squiggle:
~. Dial +
n given not, as in Spain. Use Compose +
~ and you can spell São Paulo correctly.
What makes a Compose key so handy is that for most combinations you don’t need to search for them; you can just guess. For example, the closest thing to an umlaut is a double quote, so Compose +
" given a. For most characters, the order doesn’t matter, so Dial +
u means the same thing. Suddenly, München is within reach.
It’s convenient and it’s free. Just download WinCompose, or if you’re clinging to something old, try AllChars instead.
Smug Linux guys have it built in, on just about every Linux workstation. All you have to do is enable it, for example with GNOME Tweaks, KDE System Settings or Xfce Settings Editor.
Mac fans can try Mac Ompose or osx-compose-key, but your correspondent has to admit he’s never gotten it working himself.
The real question is why this incredibly useful feature wasn’t included on the PC in the first place. It very easily could have been, and should have been, because it was part of the design that has inspired just about every keyboard since 1984.
Those even more geriatric than the author might remember that back in the foggy days of old – 1981, when IBM launched the PC – it had a very different keyboard layout than today.
The IBM Model F released for the IBM PC 5150 with the XT protocol. Photo : RaymanGold22, CC 1.0
The one we all know today, the Enhanced Layout, originated from IBM’s second generation PC, the PC/AT in 1984.
An early IBM M model manufactured in 1986 with the “square badge” logo. Photo : RaymanGold22, CC 1.0
What you might not know is that the enhanced layout was not originally an IBM layout and started with another company. It was inspired by DEC’s LK201 keyboard for the VT220 terminal.
DEC’s LK201 keyboard.
It has many familiar features: function keys in clusters at the top, inverted-T cursor keys with edit keys above them, and more. But it has one thing that IBM has unfortunately not reproduced: to the left of the keyboard, a key labeled Compose a character.
Sun adopted him too…
If only IBM had taken that too, the world might never have needed the dozens of national layouts we have now… although to be fair, we’d probably still have to deal with AZERTY and QWERTZ. ®