Dealing with keyboards is mini-hell

It’s been a while since I’ve written about programming, but lately I’ve gotten back to working on Ultrawidify. With no major bugs or problems that require immediate fix, I can finally get to work on bugs and features that I’ve been kicking down the line for a while.

Problem of the week are, of course, keyboards (or keyboard layouts).

In javascript, you have roughly two ways of identifying the key the user has pressed. There’s event.keyCode, which gives you some number that’s associated with the key. Pro of using keyCode is that it’s going to be the same for a given key, regardless of keyboard layout. Con of this method is that keyCode is going to be the same for a given key, regardless of keyboard layout (+ a few other downsides).

To elaborate a bit further on the problem: a significant chunk of Europe uses QWERTZ layout. QWERTZ is much like QWERTY layout Americans (and the rest of Europe except France) are using, except ‘Z’ and ‘Y’ trade places. French weren’t content with swapping only two letters and came up with with AZERTY layout instead. Then you also have things like Dvorak and Colemak layouts, because some people insist it makes their typing much faster. As letters trade places around the keyboard with each different layout, the keycodes don’t.

As a result, you can never be sure what letter the end user get from pressing what key. On some layouts, keycode 90 will give you Y, on others Z. This means that if you base your keyboard shortcuts on a QWERTZ layout and have ‘Z’ as a shortcut for anything, French and QWERTY users will wonder why they have to press the Y key, and Dvorak users will just shout at you that keyboard shortcuts don’t work.

If your goal is to have keyboard shortcuts that won’t be flat out wrong for people using a different keyboard layout than your own, then keyCode is not the way. Handling different keyboard layouts is an easy road to code spaghettification. Most importantly, it’s a major pain in the ass. You’ll spend a lot of time on it, but with very little gain.

Fortunately for us, modern javascript provides a solution to that. Events for key handling come with a property event.key, which gives us the character we pressed.

Neat. Now I can just use this property for all my keyboard shortcuts. Since event.key gives us a specific character, I no longer have to pay attention. I can just say “press Z to zoom.” After all, the ‘z’ that event.key gives me is exactly the same, regardless of whether the user uses QWERTZ, QWERTY or something more exotic. Foolproof, isn’t it?

image
Cyka blyat1and yes, I know ‘cyka blyat’ is just a DotA2/CSGO meme and doesn’t actually make sense in russian.

Wrong, sir, wrong.

True, event.key will return the same letter regardless of what keyboard layout you pressed said letter on. However, some letters are unpressable on certain keyboard layouts. If you’re using cyrillic (or anything non-latin), you’ll quickly find that keyboard shortcuts using even the standard ASCII letters no longer work.

Certainly a mild oversight on my part, but in my defence: the only reason I’ve started developing this extension is because at the time, there was no extension for fixing aspect ratio available for Firefox (Chrome did have a fair share of aspect ratio fixers such as Ultrawide Video, but those hadn’t been ported to Firefox until way later) and I really wanted the functionality. And when all you want is a swingset, why build a rollercoaster? The good old days.

But let’s get back to the topic at hand. If we want to fix the Russian problem, we’re in a bit of a tough spot. event.keyCode is starting to look better and better by the minute … except it doesn’t, really.

What can be done?

The options roughly boil down to the following:

1. Use event.keyCode to determine keys.

This option brings a lot of problems. Not only will there be issues with people using non-QWERTZ layouts (unless I spend unreasonable amount of time working on getting around that), using event.keycode would mean I have to rewrite lots of the existing code. More importantly — since all keys have been fully rebindable for a while in extension settings, I would have to decide between writing something that will correctly preserve keyboard shortcuts for existing users (annoying, quick StackOverflow recon didn’t give encouraging results), or reset keyboard shortcuts to default for everyone (easy but rather unacceptable. I don’t want another Nosedive).

2. Use event.keyCode to determine keys for new users, event.key for existing ones

This one offers some benefits over purely keycode solution — I don’t have to write code to port keyboard shortcuts to the new system, I don’t have to wipe settings of existing users. Still has some drawbacks that I don’t like, though — namely, the fact that I’ll have to deal with displayed keyboard shortcuts being wrong for non-QWERTZ keyboard layouts.

3. Keep using event.key and fall back to event.keycode if event.key doesn’t contain an ASCII character

Hey look, this is the quick and lazy solution we’ve been looking for. It’s also dirty, but it’s going to work. Maybe not on custom shortcuts, but we’ll see.

And all will be fine.

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