Why do keyboards have a Windows key? This is where it started

Vintage Windows key photo
Benj Edwards

If you’re on Windows, you may have wondered about the little Windows logo key on your keyboard. It will open the Start menu and run useful shortcuts, but where did it come from? Why is it there? Let’s see.

The origin of the Windows key

It may seem like the Windows key has always been with us, but it isn’t. It first appeared on the Microsoft Natural Keyboard in September 1994. This ergonomic keyboard was in the same vein as the earlier Apple Adjustable Keyboard, which split the standard QWERTY keyboard in two. However, unlike Apple’s keyboard, Microsoft has tilted each half at gentle angles to reduce the strain on the wrist.

At the time, Microsoft had already made other hardware products, including the critically acclaimed mice. When it came time to make its first keyboard, someone at Microsoft had the brilliant idea of ​​putting a permanent piece of Windows branding on it. This resulted in two Windows keys, which were located between the Control and Alt keys to the left and right of the space bar.

Microsoft Natural Keyboard Box.
The original Microsoft Natural Keyboard Box, circa 1994. Microsoft

These new keys would justify themselves by becoming the new meta keys for improved Windows shortcuts, similar to the Command key on the Mac. Once pressed, the Windows key opened the Start menu in Microsoft Windows 95 (almost a year after the keyboard released).

When used in conjunction with other keys, the Windows key can perform other Windows-related tasks such as opening File Explorer (Windows + E).

In addition to the Windows keys, the Natural Keyboard also had a menu key designed to open the shortcut menu in Windows 95.

Soon after its release, the Natural Keyboard became a huge success, selling 600,000 copies per month at the height of its popularity. (In February 1996, Byte Magazine reported that “nearly 1 million” units were sold during its first year on the market). This success led to a long-running ergonomic keyboard family at Microsoft that continues to this day.

The Windows key on a Microsoft Natural Keyboard.
The Windows key on a Microsoft Natural Keyboard. Benj Edwards

However, the Windows key wasn’t limited to just ergonomic keyboards. Microsoft created a new 104-key standard (an extension of the 101-key Model M layout) that was soon licensed by other keyboard manufacturers. With the marketing blitz of Windows 95, hardware manufacturers didn’t want to be missing out on the new features promised by the much-hyped operating system. So suddenly the Windows key was everywhere.

More recently, as part of the Windows Hardware Compatibility Program, all keyboards with more than 50 keys must contain a Windows key (also referred to as the “Hardware Start Button” in some Microsoft documents) to be certified as Windows compatible. The certification allows suppliers to use the Windows logo as part of their marketing.

Through these initiatives, Microsoft found a clever way to put its branding on any PC keyboard, further cementing its dominance in the PC market. Even if you use Linux on generic PC hardware, chances are you will see a small Windows logo on your keyboard.

Windows Key Pushback

However, not everyone was a fan of the new Windows and menu keys. Gamers, in particular, soon discovered that the Windows key got in the way of playing many of the thousands of MS-DOS games that used the Control and Alt keys as action buttons, such as Doom.

A screenshot of Doom for MS-DOS.

Additionally, if you were playing an MS-DOS game on Windows, or even just a full screen Windows game, you would often press the Windows key to open the Start menu. Not only did this shock players out of their game, but in some cases it also crashed the game.

Remedies include physically removing the Windows key from a keyboard with a screwdriver or running a utility such as WinKey Killer that software disabled the key. These days you can disable the Windows key with a utility such as Microsoft PowerToys.

RELATED: How to disable Windows key on Windows 10

In addition to gaming, not everyone needed or appreciated using an extra modifier key. Even Brad Silverberg, former senior vice president of Microsoft’s Personal Systems division and one of the key architects, doesn’t use it.

“I’ve just never had the habit of using the Windows key,” Silverberg told How-To Geek. “I don’t generally use many shortcut keys. It’s just how my brain and fingers work. “

A screenshot of Microsoft Windows 95.

Still, Silverberg understands why people enjoy the Windows key and writes it to personal taste.

Some people are die-hards when it comes to keyboard shortcuts, ”said Silverberg. “They all know them and use them a lot. I use a few; they just don’t stick in my head. “

However, Silverberg also noted that the ability to use powerful keyboard shortcuts in addition to the more obvious mouse-based menus was an important design aspect of Windows 95. It was important to him that keyboard shortcuts should be “accelerators,” not the only way to do something. to do. “

And so it remains to this day.

Of course, some diehards (including those who prefer the classic IBM Model M keyboard) have never upgraded to a keyboard with a Windows key. If that’s you, and you’ve found yourself needing a Windows key every once in a while, you can simulate it through PowerToys or just press Ctrl + Esc to open the Start menu.

RELATED: How to create a Windows key if you don’t have one

What is the Windows key doing today?

Windows key
White-white / Shutterstock

As we mentioned above, a single press of the Windows key opens the Start menu. (It’s no coincidence that the Start button is also the Windows logo.)

When used with other keys, the Windows key can launch dozens of tasks in Windows 10, including the following:

  • Windows + I: Opens Settings.
  • Windows + E: Opens File Explorer.
  • Windows + D: Shows / hides the desktop.
  • Windows + F: Opens the search box.
  • Windows + M: Minimizes all open windows.
  • Windows + Tab: Shows task view.
  • Windows + L: Locks the screen.
  • Windows + A: Opens Action Center.
  • Windows + Period: Opens the Emoji panel.

There are dozens more. If you memorize them, they are useful for quickly doing all kinds of things in Windows, including managing virtual desktops or rearranging windows.

The Windows key was – and still is – a monumental marketing victory for Microsoft. Even 26 years after its introduction, the Windows key is still incredibly useful in the Windows ecosystem.

RELATED: 30 essential Windows Key keyboard shortcuts for Windows 10

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