Escape from Escape

Escape key
Ye Olde Escape Key

During my college days computers were run from teletype machines. These teletypes had a typewriter keyboard layout extended with unfamiliar keys like Control (Ctrl) and Escape (Esc).  You could press Ctrl-G and make the teletype ring its bell — ding! You could press Esc when you mistakenly wrote a BASIC program with an infinite loop and make the program terminate. When I got an Apple ][+ in the early 1980s, Ctrl and Esc keys were present, though there was no Caps Lock key — all letters were capitalized on the Apple ][. I had to buy a separate Videoterm card to get lower case letters and perform the “Shift key mod” inside the case to get the Shift keys to work. Ah, the good old days!

ASR-33 Teletype keyboard layout
ASR-33 Teletype keyboard layout (by Daniele Giacomini [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
When the IBM PC came out its keyboard combined the IBM typewriter keyboard with the new computer keys, adding to Control and Escape the Alt key and a set of Function keys. The Alt key originated in the Meta key from MIT keyboards, and is still called the Meta key in Emacs documentation — so delightfully retro! Apple renamed the Alt key the Option key, and, with the Macintosh, added the Apple key that later became the Command key. Windows certainly couldn’t have an Apple key, so named their equivalent key the Windows key.

Apple ][ keyboard from
Apart from the Control key, which is combined with other keys to generate non-printing ASCII characters, like Bell (ASCII 7), and the Escape key (ASCII 27), these other keys originally manipulated the high order bit of a character code.  They could get away with this as ASCII only uses 7 bits of an 8 bit byte. However with internationalized keyboards and Unicode, character sets now not only require all 8 bits of a byte, but often more than one byte for each character. So modern keyboards send scancodes with each keypress and it is up to the computer operating system to make sense out of them.

I have to admit I don’t use the Function keys (F1 – F12) much anymore since my WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 days long ago. I use the Escape key mostly to get out of full screen mode when I am watching a YouTube video. But many developers use the vi or Vim editor to create their source code and depend on the Escape key. I am more an Emacs man myself, but sometimes use Vim for simple editing tasks. Vim is a modal editor, meaning there are separate text entry and editing modes. The Escape key is used to change modes. If you use Vim, you are constantly hitting the Escape key. Given the importance and long history of the Escape key (it was created in 1960), a developer who relies on Vim might be forgiven for thinking that the venerable key would be sticking around a bit longer.

IBM PC keyboard
BM PC keyboard (credit

So if I were Apple and designing the next generation MacBook Pro (MBP), eliminating the Escape key would not be high on my list of priorities. But this was what they did, turning the Escape key into an evanescent luminosity on the new Touchbar interface. This is depressing. Up to this point, the MBP has been a great developer machine. I have a “late 2013″ 15” screen MBP. It is a fast, sturdy laptop. Since Mac OS X macOS is a user interface veneer over BSD Unix, all the Unix development tools are there, as opposed to Windows devices, where installing a Unix environment is a pain. It is impossible to develop for macOS or iOS without an Apple machine. With my MBP I can develop for both Android and Apple. It is even possible to develop Windows software on a Mac, though I haven’t tried this. Because of these advantages, lots of developers use a MBP.

It seems Apple has turned its back on developers. Fortunately my current machine is working well and I don’t have any need to buy a new one yet. Ideally by the time I need a new machine the next iteration of the 15″ MBP will offer a standard keyboard and fix some of the other problems the new versions seem to be having.  Apple should focus on features that developers and other professional computer users want in a computer:  more memory than 16 GB, return of the Magsafe power cable, and at least one full-sized USB port so that old USB devices can be used without a dongle. They can continue to sell a Touchbar, USB-C only version of the 15″ MBP for people who like that sort of thing. The 13″ MBP is available with and without a Touchbar, why not do the same thing with the 15″ version?  Perhaps the death of the Escape key isn’t the end of the world, but it does seem to symbolize a lack of interest on Apple’s part in its developers.  But if developers switch to non-Apple machines, those developers will no longer be able to develop Apple apps.  In the long run this will hurt Apple’s major money-maker, the iPhone.

About mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

2 thoughts on “Escape from Escape

  1. Interesting post! I was pondering updating to the latest MBP (the one I’m typing this with is a late 2012, retina, 13″) but after checking out the link you provided I will steer clear of at least the 15″ MBP. I forwarded this to my youngest daughter who is studying comp sci at Washington University.

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