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I am sketching designs for a prospective minimalist personal computer keyboard.

I am considering omitting a TAB key. In this case, a user needing a tab would press some function key together with one of the other keys on the keyboard to get a tab. Many laptop keyboards require the user to press FN and to simulate PgDn.

I do not think asking the user to press CTRLI will work: although some programs do not distinguish between CTRLI and TAB (as in this R mini-program: if ( ! length ( dev.list () ) ) dev.new () ; getGraphicsEvent ( onKeybd = function ( k ) print ( k ) )), some do (e.g., Libre Office, where pressing TAB moves the cursor to the next tab position, while CTRLI toggles italics).

Some of us used or still use computers that do not have TAB keys. The Commodore business and personal computers of the late 1970's to mid 1980's, for example, had no TAB keys (e.g., the Commodore 64).

To restate the question, Can I expect modern personal computer users to be productive on a personal computer that has no tab key? Maybe I want to manufacture tens of thousands of these things and install them in my business locations for my employees.

For clarification, I would not consider eliminating the TAB key if I thought users (in a somewhat controlled environment with a limited software suite) would need to perform tab operations frequently.

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  • very interesting question. For the record, I upvoted all 3 answers that tell you why NOT to do it (also upvoted your question), but the question is really interesting and opens scenarios for maybe other keys.
    – Devin
    Feb 13, 2023 at 21:20
  • +1 to all answers so far for the same reason @Devin gives.
    – Ana Nimbus
    Feb 21, 2023 at 20:18
  • Answers so far seem to lean toward desktop computing. My current "smart" phone keyboard seems to lack Tab entirely: it is not even on the secondary ?123 / 1234 page nor the ternary =\? page. I am using an Android pone (new one year ago).
    – Ana Nimbus
    Feb 21, 2023 at 20:23

4 Answers 4

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No—I would definitely recommend keeping the tab key. Tab keys are important for people with motor impairments, as these people often can't use a mouse and navigate around web pages using the tab key instead. Making them press a keyboard combination instead of a single key would be detrimental to the accessibility of your keyboard design.

Many people without disabilities also use the tab key when navigating a form in particular. The fastest way to get from one form field to the next is by pressing tab rather than reaching for the mouse. Turning the tab function into a keyboard combination adds friction and makes that action more difficult.

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  • 1
    Agreed. Essential both for efficiency and accessibility. Feb 12, 2023 at 5:33
  • I'm choosing this as the answer because of the consideration for disability. Without considering disability, it's hard to see how, e.g., a worker could not be asked to improvise. By the way, I would not consider eliminating a dedicated Tab key in the first place unless I had some confidence that the need to use it would be rare, say in the case where a shop has a limited number of applications with which to interact. Maybe the keyboard is dedicated to a single machine and a single program with which to interact with that machine.
    – Ana Nimbus
    Feb 21, 2023 at 20:32
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You can, but you shouldn't. It's used for many things:

  • indentation (Tab adds one, Shift+Tab removes one)
  • coding - the Tab character may still be needed for compatibility, and inserting four spaces manually is harder
  • Alt+Tab is used to switch windows, and Ctrl+Tab to switch tabs

Also, what would you put in its place?

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The tab key is a bit weird as it serves a lot more functions than most other keys:

  • It inserts a tab into text. In the context of programming, this is very common
  • It is used to cycle between elements - both on websites/within apps, but also between different windows with alt+tab. Cycling backwards is done via (alt+)shift+tab.
  • It is used to switch between different working modes in some applications (eg Blender, Ableton Live)
  • It is used in games as the inventory/menu button (with Esc being a more "system" focused menu usually), or to open some other overlay (eg Steam's shift+tab).

In general, since the tab key is very prominently and easy to access, and it's original "insert tabs into this text" function is very rarely relevant, tab has become a swiss-army-knife kind of thing in practice - if you have an important mode/menu/widget which needs to be easily accessible, tab is probably where it'll end up.


Maybe I want to manufacture tens of thousands of these things and install them in my business locations for my employees.

You probably shouldn't. You'd get in the way of your employees' preferences (switch types, key travel length, layout, ergonomics, etc.) and into a world of hurt designing the thing, sourcing parts, sourcing manufacturers, etc. It's a lot of work, cost and risk for virtually no benefit.

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This is really an issue of Standards and their reach, you want to use a non-standard keyboard layout. Forgoing standards will have consequences, such as sociability with software and hardware as well as market size. To be viable your non-standard hardware would need to map to a standard, as you have acknowledged with the use of a mapped key (or combination of keys).

There are some standard keyboard layouts that don't have a TAB key, not many people want to use them though and you should check for support with popular operating systems.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyboard_layout

Note that there is a little known way to achieve TAB without pressing the TAB key: https://superuser.com/a/405775 I am not sure how friendly that method would be for multi-key features such as task switching though.

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