Microsoft keyboard customers had been “so devastated” when the accent was discontinued

Brittany Matter’s home desk features the mouse, keyboard, and number pad included in the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop Set, which has been discontinued. When she travels, she puts the keyboard in a backpack because she likes to work comfortably.

Brittany Matter

If Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a memo in January that there would be “changes to our hardware portfolio.” The news had worrying implications for the likes of Brittany Matter.

A freelance writer based in Olympia, Wash., Matter is a believer in Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboard, the first variant of which the company began selling nearly 30 years ago. She even brought her keyboard and mouse when she went to Hawaii for a few days earlier this month.

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Nadella’s statement spelled the end of her beloved accessory.

“Have you ever experienced fainting spells?” Matter said in an interview. “It’s that pain that creeps up the neck. They prevent you from moving your neck left and right and then your mobility is completely limited. That’s the pain I’ve experienced when my mouse and keyboard aren’t ergonomic.”

Keyboards have never been big business for Microsoft, which became a household name with its ubiquitous PC software and then made a massive entry into gaming with the Xbox. Now, much of Microsoft’s business comes from the use of its cloud services by businesses, schools, and government agencies.

But since entering the keyboard business in 1994 – four years ahead of the current market leader Logitech — Microsoft has won legions of fans for its ergonomic offerings. While the company will continue to produce keyboards, it is discontinuing its better-known ergonomic products as part of a broader effort to prioritize growing categories.

The beige Microsoft Natural Keyboard divided the letter keys into two groups so that the typist’s left hand tilted slightly to the right and vice versa. It featured Windows keys on either side of the spacebar.

“It was actually pleasant to use,” said Jeff Atwood, co-founder of programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow. “It looked cool. You could see they were trying to do something. It wasn’t just about the aesthetics. It had a purpose.”

Matter discovered ergonomic keyboards about a decade ago while working for Zulily. The e-commerce company gave her an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, which eased her wrist pain.

After that she left Apple route and used her laptop’s built-in keyboard. Then, four years ago, she found herself freelancing at Marvel where she lacked the equipment.

“I needed something that was $100 or less,” Matter said.

Wirecutter, the New York Times’ product review site, recommended a Microsoft keyboard. She followed best buy and bought the Sculpt ergonomics desktop, which included a mouse, keyboard, and a separate number pad to place next to the keyboard.

Within a year, two of the keycaps came off.

“I kept putting them on and coming to terms with them,” she said. “But then I remembered, I have this guarantee.”

Matter returned to Best Buy, who gave her a replacement. The new set has held up ever since. Now when she travels, Matter packs the keyboard in her Chrome Industries backpack.

“It’s quite big and fits right in,” she said.

Keyboard for mother and son

When the Microsoft Natural Keyboard was released, it caught the attention of Matt Steinhoff, who worked as a sysadmin for a Florida newspaper. People in the news industry were concerned that certain keyboards could lead to repetitive strain injuries. Microsoft’s keyboard looked strange to Steinhoff, but he bought one anyway after finding a coupon for it.

“It was a learning curve,” Steinhoff said. “I got a lot of funny looks. But once I got used to it, it just felt comfortable. Logically, it made perfect sense that the wrists were in a better position.”

Steinhoff became a champion of the product. In 1998 he switched newspapers and bought the newer model, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite. His mother, a retired librarian in West Palm Beach, Florida, also got one.

Lila Steinhoff, a retired accountant, still uses the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite released in 1998.

Matt Steinhoff

Still, the Natural Keyboard Elite was not a universally popular product.

The arrow keys were arranged in a diamond shape. Microsoft designed it that way because some people complained that the previous keyboard was taking up too much desk space, said Hugh McLoone, lead user experience researcher at the company.

However, the updated layout made it “impossible to mess around with or work around a spreadsheet,” Steinhoff said. “You’re just not in the right position.”

Of the Diamond Arrow Cluster’s critics, McLoone said: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

In 2005, Steinhoff started a new job. He bought Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, which reverted the arrow keys to the more traditional inverted-T orientation.

McLoone had worked on the design of the 4000 model for seven years.

The new keyboard had a higher bump in the center and certain keys were offset inward and up so users didn’t have to reach their fingers as far. It shouldn’t just be comfortable. McLoone also placed an emphasis on performance and appeal.

A study had shown that 22 out of 23 people preferred the geometry of the Natural Pregnant Keyboard 4000 to the older Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro. According to Circana data, it became the best-selling aftermarket wired keyboard in the United States.

Software developer Marco Arment recommended it. Paul Graham, co-founder of Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator, was photographed wearing it.

“I’m hooked!” Atwood wrote on his Coding Horror blog after purchasing one.

Steinhoff used it for 11 years. A replacement lasted another six years. In 2022, he bought a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard for his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and another to work in a client’s office.

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From top to bottom, Matt Steinhoff’s private collection includes the Microsoft Ergonomics keyboard that he uses every day, a Microsoft Natural Ergonomics Desktop 7000 keyboard that someone gave him and his old Microsoft Natural Ergonomics keyboard 4000 that he has with him as a backup.

Matt Steinhoff

Neither model was perfect for Steinhoff, but he appreciates their affordability. And relying on her all these years might have been a kind of preventive measure. His brother recently had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

“I definitely put off having an ergonomic keyboard,” he said.

As for his mother’s keyboard, Steinhoff’s family knows not to touch it, even though she updates her computer about every ten years.

“I really, really, really like my keyboard,” she wrote in an email to her son. “No, you can’t have that.”

Many software developers at Microsoft also like them, said Edie Adams, the company’s director of ergonomics, in an interview in 2022.

“I think it’s because people are used to it,” she said.

A changing market

Atwood said he understands why Microsoft decided to pull out of the market after so many years. For one thing, keyboards are becoming more and more popular, and people are posting videos on social media of themselves assembling them. In the 1990s, the average person who bought a PC simply used the keyboard that came with it.

On Atwood’s desk at his home in Berkeley, California, lies a dazzling keyboard that someone built for him.

“The industry has matured and they have other things they want to focus on,” said Atwood, who announced in 2013 that he had collaborated with WASD Keyboards on a stripped-down mechanical keyboard called Code. “They really deserve a lot of credit for their hardware. I don’t think that was appreciated. They really moved things forward.”

A Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC in an email that the company is “focusing on its Windows PC accessories portfolio under the Surface brand.”

McLoone owns a Microsoft Wireless Comfort Desktop 5050 whose keyboard uses the curved design he developed before leaving Microsoft in 2009. The keys are arranged to promote good posture, with larger keys in the middle. Microsoft’s modern Sculpt Comfort Desktop kit includes a keyboard that uses a similar style.

The keyboard isn’t stocked on Microsoft’s website, but it’s still available on Amazon. A person in Japan bought 10 units from Amazon after hearing the news that Microsoft was stopping production of the product.

What does McLoone suggest?

“I don’t know it. Buy the next best thing. Stock up,” said McLoone, who now works as a senior manager of user experience research at T-Mobile.

Other versions of the older Microsoft keyboards are also sold out, but can still be found elsewhere online for now.

Microsoft still sells the Surface Ergonomic Keyboard, which launched in 2016. While not stocked on the company’s website, “it remains part of our Surface-branded line of PC accessories,” the company spokesman said. The model retails for $129.99 on Amazon, double the price of Microsoft’s discontinued ergonomic keyboard.

Other companies, including Logitech, still make ergonomic keyboards. But that’s no consolation for people like Matter.

“I’m so devastated,” Matter wrote in an email. “I need to buy another set as a replacement before they stop selling.”

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