When Peter Keung bought an Acer laptop for his mother a couple of years ago, it came with a surprise. The machine arrived with a multilingual keyboard instead of the familiar U.S. English layout he expected.
The key layout is different enough to cause touch typists considerable annoyance. It certainly bothered Mr. Keung's mother, who, he says, complained until he replaced it with a compatible U.S. English keyboard he found on eBay.
Then, when he blogged about the experience, dozens of other users who had also been blindsided by the new keyboards chimed in, some with considerable venom.
So what's the big deal?
For a touch typist in particular, quite a bit. The U.S. English keyboard has a wide, flat "Enter" key with the backslash and right bracket keys above it. The multilingual keyboard has a tall, narrow Enter key that's two rows high. That pushes the backslash key down a row, sitting where someone familiar with the U.S. English layout would expect the left half of the Enter key.
On the left side of the keyboard, the English layout offers a wide "Shift" key, while the multilingual version chops the key in half and sneaks an extra key in beside the Z.
Mr. Keung, who is managing director of the Vancouver-based Web development company Mugo Web, says he now pays close attention to keyboards when purchasing computers for co-workers and family.
Multilingual keyboards, which today dominate at big retailers, have led some customers to return their purchases and others to seek keyboard replacements. Some laptop customers have been out of luck trying to find the model they want with the keyboard they need.
The bottom line is that for less expensive consumer systems, manufacturers are settling on the one keyboard that works for all of Canada: the multilingual model. With premium consumer products or business systems, there is usually still a choice.
Indignant visitors to technology blogs have raged at retailers that did not clearly indicate the type of keyboard shipping with a laptop. Some said that websites displayed images with the U.S. English keyboard but vendors shipped the bilingual version.
"From what I've seen, bilingual keyboards are the majority in retail stores of all sizes," Mr. Keung says. "You can still find 'English-only' keyboard computers in stores, but you are limited in the models you can choose; it's not like there are two variations of each model in the same store."
The move stems in part from the 1977 Quebec language law, the Charter of the French Language. Regulations enacted based on it require vendors supplying computers in Quebec to provide keyboards "with inscriptions, command buttons and keyboard keys in French." The multilingual keyboard also makes it easier to type accented characters.
Rather than offering separate products in Quebec and the rest of Canada, some vendors have opted to supply multilingual keyboards across the board, typically on the lower-priced consumer units. They say it reduces costs and the complexity of inventory control.
Retailers are not to blame, however, says Elliott Chun, communications manager at Future Shop Ltd. Manufacturers decide what type of keyboard to provide.
Mr. Chun insists that at Future Shop, "in-store, the packaging is clearly marked, and we have demo units on display showing what we carry. Our product experts also are available to share features and specifications of every laptop we sell." And, he says, the company's website shows which keyboards are offered.
Manufacturers have chosen to offer different keyboards depending on the product. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has chosen to provide multilingual operating systems and keyboards on all of its consumer notebooks, citing "efficiencies in the supply chain."
For consumer desktops, it also ships only multilingual keyboards to retailers, although customers can purchase U.S. English keyboards separately. For some models sold online, customers can choose the U.S. English version.
Dell, too, has chosen to offer only multilingual keyboards for some of its more popular Inspiron consumer laptops: "The decision to go with the MUI (multilingual) keyboard was made essentially to reduce cost and for simplicity (one less component to forecast and manage and for a better customer experience)."
Asus says much the same thing.
Lenovo approaches things differently. It offers the choice of keyboards on ThinkPad products, as well as French-language equivalents of each model. In the consumer segment, IdeaPads are offered with English-only keyboards as well as bilingual equivalents of each model.
The bottom line appears to be, for less expensive consumer systems where they really need to keep cost down, most vendors are settling on the one keyboard that works for all of Canada: the multilingual keyboard. With premium consumer products or business systems, there is usually still a choice.