A freelance writer in Olympia, Washington, Matter is a devotee of Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboard, the first variation of which the company started selling almost 30 years ago. She even brought along her keyboard and mouse when she traveled to Hawaii for a few days earlier this month.
Nadella’s pronouncement meant the end for her beloved accessory.
“Have you ever experienced fainting symptoms?” Matter said in an interview. “It’s this pain that crawls up the back of your neck. It prevents you from moving your neck left and right, and then your mobility is completely diminished. That’s the pain that I’ve experienced when my mouse and keyboard are not ergonomic.”
Keyboards have never been a huge business for Microsoft, which became a household name due to its ubiquitous PC software and then made a massive entrance into gaming with the Xbox. Now, much of Microsoft’s business comes from use of its cloud services by businesses, schools and government agencies.
But since entering the keyboard business in 1994 — four years earlier than current market leader Logitech — Microsoft has attracted legions of fans to its ergonomic offerings. While the company will continue producing keyboards, it’s sunsetting the more well-known ergonomic products as part of a broader effort to prioritize growing categories.
Beige in color, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard split the letter keys into two clusters so that the typist’s left hand would be slightly slanted right, and vice versa. It featured Windows keys on either side of the space bar.
“It was actually pleasant to use,” said Jeff Atwood, a co-founder of the programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow. “It looked cool. You could see they were trying to do something. It wasn’t just aesthetics. It had a purpose.”
Matter discovered ergonomic keyboards roughly a decade ago, when she worked for Zulily. The e-commerce company gave her an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, which reduced her wrist pain.
After that, she went the Apple route and used the built-in keyboard on her laptop. Then, four years ago, she found herself in a freelance role with Marvel, which wasn’t giving her equipment.
“I needed something that was $100 or less,” Matter said.
Wirecutter, the New York Times’ product-review website, recommended a keyboard from Microsoft. She went to Best Buy and bought the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, containing a mouse, a keyboard and a separate number pad that she could place beside the keyboard.
Within a year, two of the keycaps popped off.
“I kept putting them on and kind of dealing with it,” she said. “But then I remembered, I have this warranty.”
Matter returned to Best Buy, which gave her a replacement. The new set has held up ever since. And now when she travels, Matter stows the keyboard in her Chrome Industries backpack.
“It’s kind of tall, and so it fits right in there,” she said.
Keyboard for mother and son
When the Microsoft Natural Keyboard appeared on the market, it caught the attention of Matt Steinhoff, who was working as a systems administrator at a newspaper in Florida. People in the news business had become concerned that certain keyboards could leave them with repetitive stress 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 weird 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 an evangelist for the product. He switched newspapers in 1998 and bought the newer model, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite. His mother, a retired librarian in West Palm Beach, Florida, got one, too.
Still, the Natural Keyboard Elite was not a universally loved product.
The arrow keys were arranged in a diamond shape. Microsoft designed them that way because some people complained that the predecessor keyboard took up too much desk space, said Hugh McLoone, who was a senior user experience researcher at the company.
However, the updated layout made it “impossible to game or get around a spreadsheet,” Steinhoff said. “They’re just not in the right position.”
To the critics of the diamond arrow cluster, McLoone had these words: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
By 2005, Steinhoff had started at a new job. He got Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, which had returned the arrow keys to a more traditional inverted T orientation.
McLoone had labored over the design of the 4000 model for seven years.
The new keyboard had a taller bump in the middle, and certain keys were set inward and upward so users wouldn’t have to reach their fingers as far. It wasn’t only meant to be comfortable. McLoone also cared about performance and appeal.
A study had shown that 22 out of 23 people preferred the geometry of the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 over the older Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro. It became the best-selling aftermarket wired keyboard in the U.S., according to Circana data.
“I’m ecstatic!” Atwood wrote on his Coding Horror blog after buying one.
Steinhoff used his for 11 years. A replacement lasted another six years. In 2022, he bought a Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard for his house in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and another one for when he was working at a client’s office.
None of the models have been perfect for Steinhoff, but he appreciates their affordability. And relying on them for all these years might have been a kind of preventive measure. His brother recently had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
“I’ve certainly put if off by having an ergonomic keyboard,” he said.
As for his mother’s keyboard, Steinhoff”s family knows not to touch it even when they update her computer every 10 years or so.
“I really, really, really like my keyboard,” she wrote in an email to her son. “No, you can’t have it.”
Plenty of software developers at Microsoft like them too, Edie Adams, a director of ergonomics at the company, said in a 2022 interview.
“I think that’s because people are used to it,” she said.
A changing market
Atwood said he understands why Microsoft chose to step back from the market after so many years. For one, keyboards have exploded in popularity, and people post social media videos of themselves assembling them. In the 1990s, the average person who bought a PC just used the keyboard that came in the box.
On Atwood’s desk at his home in Berkeley, California, sits an iridescent keyboard someone built for him.
“The industry is mature, 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 the Code. “They really deserve a lot of credit for hardware stuff. It was unappreciated, in my opinion. 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 utilizes the curvy design he pioneered before leaving Microsoft in 2009. The keys are set up to encourage good posture, with larger keys in the middle. Microsoft’s contemporary Sculpt Comfort Desktop kit includes a keyboard that employs a similar style.
The keyboard is out of stock on Microsoft’s website, although it remains available on Amazon. One person in Japan bought 10 on Amazon after hearing the news that Microsoft would stop making the product.
What does McLoone suggest?
“I don’t know. Buy the next best thing. Stockpile them,” said McLoone, who now works as a senior manager of user experience research at T-Mobile.
Other versions of Microsoft’s older keyboards are likewise out of stock but still can be found elsewhere online for the time being.
Microsoft is still selling the Surface Ergonomic Keyboard, which came out in 2016. While it’s out of stock on the company’s website, it “remains part of our Surface-branded PC Accessories lineup,” the company spokesperson said. The model costs $129.99 on Amazon, twice the price of the discontinued Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard.
Other companies, including Logitech, still make ergonomic keyboards. But that’s of little consolation to people like Matter.
“I am so devastated,” Matter wrote in an email. “I’ll have to buy another set as a backup before they stop selling them.”