If you are using Windows, you might have wondered about the little key with the Windows logo on your keyboard. It opens the Start menu and runs some useful shortcuts, but where does it come from? Why is it there? We will take a look.
The origin of the Windows key
It may seem like the Windows Key has always been with us, but it isn’t. He first appeared in September 1994 on the Microsoft natural keyboard. This ergonomic keyboard was in the same vein as the old one Apple adjustable keyboard, which divides the standard QWERTY keyboard in half. Unlike Apple’s keyboard, however, Microsoft angled each half at gentle angles to reduce wrist strain.
At this point, Microsoft had already created other hardware products, including his widely acclaimed mice. When it was time to make their first keyboard, someone at Microsoft had the brilliant idea of including a permanent Windows branded patch on it. This resulted in two Windows keys, located between the Control and Alt keys to the left and right of the space bar.
The original Microsoft Natural keyboard box, circa 1994. Microsoft
These new keys would be justified by becoming the new meta-keys for improved Windows shortcuts, similar to the Command key on Mac. When pressed once, the Windows key opens the Start menu in Microsoft Windows 95 (released almost a year after the keyboard).
When used in combination with other keys, the Windows key can perform other Windows related tasks, such as opening File Explorer (Windows + E).
In addition to the Windows keys, the natural keyboard also had a Menu key designed to open the right click context menu in Windows 95.
Shortly after its release, the natural keyboard became a huge hit, sell 600,000 units per month at the height of its popularity. (In February 1996, Byte Magazine reported “Almost a million” units had been sold in its first year on the market). This success spawned a long series of ergonomic keyboards at Microsoft which continues to this day.
The Windows key on a Microsoft natural keyboard. Benj Edwards
However, the Windows key was not limited to ergonomic keyboards. Microsoft has created a new 104-key standard (an extension of the 101-key M model layout) that other keyboard manufacturers soon fired. With the Windows 95 marketing blitz, hardware makers didn’t want to be left out of the new features promised by the hotly-trending operating system. So suddenly the Windows key was all over the place.
More recently, as part of the Windows Hardware Compatibility Program, all keyboards with more than 50 keys must include a Windows key (also called a “hardware start button” in some Microsoft documents) to be certified as Windows compatible. The certification allows suppliers to use the Windows logo in their marketing.
Through these initiatives, Microsoft has found a smart way to put its mark on every PC keyboard, further strengthening its dominance in the PC market. Even if you are running Linux on generic PC hardware, you will likely see a small Windows logo on your keyboard.
Windows key pushback
However, not everyone was a fan of the new Windows and Menu keys. Gamers, in particular, quickly discovered the Windows key embarrassed while playing several of the thousands of MS-DOS games that used the Ctrl and Alt keys as action buttons, like doom.
Also, if you’re playing an MS-DOS game on Windows, or even just a full-screen Windows game, often press the Windows key to launch the Start menu. This not only got players out of their game, but in some cases it also crashed the game.
The remedies included physically removing the Windows key from a keyboard with a screwdriver or running a utility such as WinKey Killer who disabled the key through software. Today you can disable the Windows key with a utility like Microsoft PowerToys.
Beyond gaming, not everyone needed or enjoyed using an extra modifier key. Even Brad Silverberg, former senior vice president of Microsoft’s personal systems division and one of the main architects of Windows 95, doesn’t use it.
“I never got into the habit of using the Windows key,” Silverberg told How-To Geek. “I don’t use a lot of keyboard shortcuts in general. This is how my brain and my fingers work.”
Still, Silverberg understands why people like the Windows Key and considers it a personal taste.
“Some people are fond of keyboard shortcuts, ”Silverberg said. “They know them all and use them widely. I use a few; they just don’t stay in my brain. “
Silverberg also noted, however, that the ability to use powerful keyboard shortcuts in addition to the more obvious mouse-based menus was a key aspect of Windows 95 design. It was important to him that keyboard shortcuts were ” accelerators, not the only way to do something.
And so it is to this day.
Of course, some diehards (including those who prefer IBM Model M classic keyboard) have never been upgraded to a keyboard with a Windows key. If this is you and you’ve found that sometimes you need a Windows key, you can simulate it via PowerToys or just press Ctrl + Esc to open the Start menu.
What does the Windows key do today?
As we mentioned above, a single press of the Windows key opens the Start menu. (It’s no coincidence that the Start button is also the Windows logo.)
When used in combination with other keys, the Windows key can launch dozens of tasks in Windows 10, including the following:
Windows + I: Open the settings.
Windows + E: Open File Explorer.
Windows + D: Show / hide the desktop.
Windows + F: Open the search box.
Windows + M: Minimizes all open windows.
Windows + Tab: Displays the task view.
Windows + L: Lock screen.
Windows + A: Open the action center.
Windows + Period: Open the Emoji panel.
The Windows Key was – and still is – a monumental marketing victory for Microsoft. But even so, 26 years after its introduction, the Windows Key remains incredibly useful in the Windows ecosystem.