Finding Keys To The Kingdom

Our reliance on keyboards, keypads and button-bearing devices of all kinds is creating a dependency that is not altogether healthy.

Our reliance on keyboards, keypads and button-bearing devices of all kinds is creating a dependency that is not altogether healthy.

This became clear to me one night early this month in an unfamiliar hotel.

My bad luck had turned to good luck — or so I thought. Because my room at one hotel had been flooded, I was put up at the St. Regis Hotel, in a rather fancy suite. In the middle of the night.

Now, this suite had cordless phones. It had two televisions and two videotape players. But no clock could be found. Which, come morning, was crucial. Wanting to know the time, I tried, half-awake, to fire up the TV.

Easier said than done. The first remote control I picked up had 57 keys. And didnt turn on the TV. The second had 52 keys. And didnt turn on the TV. The third had 41 keys. And didnt turn on the TV. The fourth had a lot of buttons that formed circles and arrows and such. And didnt turn on the TV.

So it was time to use the finger, so to speak. Finding the "on" button on the front of the TV was easy enough. But all I got was snow. Pushing the channel buttons got only fuzzy pictures and scratchy sound. Until I figured out that I had to turn on the attached videotape recorder as well. By this time, it was just easier to get up, anyway.

Now its altogether possible that the remotes were working. But when youre facing 50-plus buttons and the labels are too small to read, who cares? Life is too short to learn the intricacies of keyboard madness.

The madness is spreading. Witness the ever-escalating size and scope of the computer keyboard. It used to be that there were 54 or so keys on a keyboard. On laptops, thats still fairly common.

But the desktop variety is getting past 110 buttons. There is the alphabetic part of the keyboard and the numeric keypad portion. There may be special Internet access buttons and all variety of combinations of keys to provide new functions.

Even individual buttons are beyond fathoming. Just ask users of Apple Computer Macintosh G3 PowerBooks. The "on/off" button only turns the machine on. If your machine freezes, you cant use the button to turn it off. The only way to do that is to disconnect the power cord, remove the battery pack, stick it back in and then reboot.

The developers of remote control technology, though, want only to increase this dependency. Have you seen one of those Sony remotes that are supposed to help you control your DVD player, your stereo, your TV and just about any other device in your home entertainment center? There are so many keys the face opens up to reveal a second level of buttons, to handle all potential instructions.

Is there a way out? Maybe. Universal Electronics, a company in Cypress, Calif., has been hard at work in the past couple of years developing a touch screen tablet that is designed to supersede button- and code-crazy remotes.

The first generation of this product, now out, is basically a home theater remote control. The second generation is designed to work as an interactive content device, showing weather, sports statistics, program listings and other information while youre dealing with the TV. But the third generation, due out possibly next year, is where it gets interesting.

Working with home servers, the company wants its touch device to control just about any electromechanical device in a household, from the compact disc player to the dishwasher to the thermostat to the TV. Who hasnt been lying on the couch, working up a case of laze rage, wanting to turn off the annoying clothes dryer while trying to watch Survivor? Or turn out the lights? Or raise the temperature of the room? Maybe even start the gas logs burning.

This has me worried. The name of its tablet is Mosaic. The last time Mosaic was a big thing, the World Wide Web took off.

Hopefully, history doesnt repeat itself.