Here’s to Function Keys, the Dying Top Row of Your Keyboard
Product Design

Here’s to Function Keys, the Dying Top Row of Your Keyboard

Apple officially did away with function keys on the MacBook Pro for its mid-2019 refresh, going all-in on the Touch Bar instead. If this is indeed the end of function keys on MacBooks, they had a good run. In fact, function keys have been around since the earliest days of personal computing.

What Are Function Keys, Anyways?

Function keys are the top row of keys on your keyboard, and they’re easily identified by an “F” and a number (F1, F2, F3, and so on). These keys perform shortcuts to certain functions (hence their name), and they have different actions assigned to them depending on what app you’re using. In a web browser, F5 refreshes the current web page, but in PowerPoint, it starts your slideshow. Some function keys are more universal, like F1 to open a help window in most apps.

Function keys on a Logitech keyboard

Most keyboards have function keys, but sometimes the keys are mapped to other actions by default and can only be used as actual function keys if you press a dedicated “Fn” modifier key on the keyboard first. For example, the F5 key on a MacBook is designated as a brightness adjustment key for the keyboard’s backlight—it isn’t until you hold down the “Fn” key and press F5 that it will perform its in-app function (like reloading a web page in your browser). Other times, function keys can be combined with other modifier keys (Control, Alt, Shift, etc.) to perform even more actions—like Alt+F4 for quitting a program in Windows.

On some keyboards, you can use Function Lock to switch the top row between special keys and Function keys, or often change a software or BIOS setting to pick either one.

Where Did Function Keys Come From?

As typewriters faded out and more complex personal computers took their place, more keys had to be added to the keyboard to handle all of the added functionality. Thus, function keys were born.

Back in the early days of computing, when GUIs didn’t yet exist, people typed into command prompts. And function keys were really nice to have. They functioned much like how they function today, performing common commands with just the press of a button.

For instance, in the command-line-centered MS-DOS, F1, F2, and F3 provided quick ways to copy and edit previous commands. And in cases where you had lots of different options to choose from on the screen (like in Lotus 1-2-3), you could use function keys to quickly select something, instead of repeatedly pressing arrow keys.

One of the earliest examples of function keys were those found on the Model 2201 Programmatic Flexowriter from Friden in 1965. It had 13 function keys off to the right, located where the number pad would be on modern keyboards. Except, it wasn’t necessarily a computer.

The keyboard on a Flexowriter Progammatic 2201
The keyboard on the Model 2201 Progammatic Flexowriter, with the function keys on the left side. Image courtesy of Doug Jones.

“It’s not a computer, but a stand-alone word processor that could be hooked up as a computer terminal,” says Doug Jones, a computer science associate professor at the University of Iowa. “But indeed, as far as I can tell, the 22xx series of Programmatic Flexowriters were the first to have programmable function keys.”

The functions keys were programmable via a plugboard on the back of the machine, as Jones explains:

“It was programmable, with a tab bar you could swap out…with mechanical tab stops on the front of the tab bar and electronic stops on the back. The program that links the function keys and electronic tab stops to behaviors is a plugboard with a maze of wires from input pins that are triggered by keyboard keys (both function keys and others like return and shift) and by electronic tabs, to output pins that evoke behaviors like the actual return, tab, tape reader on, tape punch on, auxiliary reader on, auxiliary punch on, auxiliary search for mark, etc.”

In other words, even on a proto-computer that didn’t have a screen, function keys could do weird, efficient stuff with ink and punch tape.

While the 2201 had its function keys on the right side of the keyboard, the original IBM Model F keyboard from 1981 took a different approach and put 10 function keys off to the left in two columns of five keys. Eventually, it was updated with two full rows of 12 function keys at the top—24 in total. It wasn’t until 1984 that 12 function keys became the standard when IBM introduced the Model M keyboard, a legend of its kind.

IBM Model F keyboard with 24 function keys
IBM Model F keyboard with two rows of 12 function keys at the top. Image from Raymangold22/Wikimedia Commons

Even though functions keys were alive and well back in the late 1970s, Apple took a while to adopt them. The Apple II, the first Apple computer to come with a keyboard, didn’t have function keys when it released in 1977, nor did its many subsequent variants. But when, in 1987, Apple released its Extended Keyboard alongside the Macintosh II, it went big, adding 15 function keys. And today, you’ll find 19 function keys on Apple’s Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad—the regular Magic Keyboard, and all of Apple’s laptops (save for Touch Bar models), have the standard 12.

Are These Keys Necessary Anymore?

Function keys are still somewhat useful, but their use cases for the average personal computer are becoming an afterthought in favor of multimedia keys, brightness adjustment keys, or…you know…Touch Bars. The function keys are still “there,” but they’re secondary.

However, they’re still useful and even integral in some programs. For example, sometimes you can’t even access the BIOS of a computer without hitting a function key first. And once you’re in, function keys allow you to navigate around—F10, for instance, is the standard key for saving changes to your BIOS settings and exiting.

In Vim (a popular command-line text editor), you can map the function keys to frequently-used commands. For PC gamers, keys like F5 and F9 are written to their muscle memory as quick save and quick load for many games.

Chromebooks, however, have ditched the traditional function keys entirely. The keyboards still have a top row of multimedia keys and the like, but they don’t double as traditional function keys like most other keyboards—Chrome OS has replaced most function-key actions with its own keyboard shortcuts. In some edge cases, that top row of keys can become function keys again, like if you were to install a Linux app or use a remote desktop through RealVNC Viewer.

Like Chrome OS, many other operating systems and individual applications have come up with ways to bypass the need for function keys entirely, usually by coming up with their own keyboard shortcuts for actions that used to be controlled by a function key.

For the most part, function keys are still around…just not maybe in the capacity they once were. And we wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually disappeared off the face of the Earth entirely.