Contributed by Bill Narin, Global Business Development, IEEE-ISTO

Hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of users around the world have the keystrokes command/control x, c, and v encoded in their muscle memories to perform cut, copy and paste operations. How did this happen?

The nearly universal adoption of today’s cut, copy and paste keyboard shortcuts is the result of a combination of breakthrough innovations and pragmatic computer design. The most relevant of these include:

  • The invention of the clipboard and its implementation as an operating system function. This meant cut, copy and paste could work reliably across applications without a formal standard. Work on the clipboard was initiated at SRI and continued at Xerox PARC. The clipboard was commercially implemented by Apple – which had staff previously employed by PARC – in their Lisa and Macintosh systems in 1983 and 1984, respectively.
  • Expansion of the command line paradigm to include “verb-object” along with the earlier “object-verb” format.  In contrast to traditional command line syntax, this innovation meant the user could identify the object to be manipulated first and then specify the action. This crucial shift enabled what is known in GUI circles as “direct manipulation”. This is where the user interacts with an object directly, using a real-world paradigm such as “touching” to select a character string or an object and then performs an operation such as “dragging” to generate an immediate result. No command line coding required – thank you!
  • The introduction of the command key (⌘) on the Macintosh to replace the Apple key shortly before the launch of the Mac. Steve Jobs had worried about the impact of overuse of the Apple icon and the potential for brand dilution. The ⌘ symbol was selected because, in Scandinavia, the symbol denoted a “point of interest” in tourism signage.
  • The thoughtful choice by Apple to use Command plus x, c, and v to represent cut, copy and paste. The keys are clustered, easy to access, and easy to memorize. The “x” for “cut” suggests a pair of open scissors, “c” is the beginning of “copy” and “v” suggests “insert here.”
  • The design decision by the Macintosh team to burn the cut, copy, and paste commands into ROM. With only 128K of RAM, Macintosh memory was a scarce resource. For developers, designing applications to call these stored routines from ROM rather than coding and executing their own proprietary routines–along with their own keyboard shortcuts–meant better use of scarce memory resources and better odds of interoperability with other applications–and, therefore, better odds of commercial success, motivating adoption.

Real world use of these keyboard shortcuts got off to a rocky start. The Macintosh used an early version of Motorola’s 68000. This processor had a defect–it could not fetch a results from a memory location with an odd-numbered address. Any attempt to do so would launch a recursive error handling routine that culminated in data loss and system shut down. Owing to statistics, this result was occurring half the time! By the time the problem was sufficiently understood, ROM design for the early Macs had already been frozen. So, the fix–consisting primarily of rounding up any odd number memory addresses–had to be implemented in software and distributed on diskette for installation by users. It took some time for the fix to propagate to early Macs in this manner.

IBM, maker of the PC, had its own shortcuts for cut, copy, and paste as part of its Common User Access Standard. Microsoft, a supplier of essential software to both IBM and Apple, initially supported both sets of shortcuts, supplanting Apple’s command key with the PC’s control key in its Windows environment. However, after several years, Microsoft abandoned IBM’s shortcuts. Along with increasing adoption by other application providers, Microsoft’s decision assured the cut, copy, and paste shortcuts introduced by Apple achieved dominance.

The lesson here is that, when it comes to standardization, there are many paths to the mountaintop. Not all global standards require multi-year efforts by international standards bodies—as the adoption of the keyboard shortcuts for cut, copy, and paste clearly illustrates.

Want to get started developing your technical standard?

ISTO meets the needs of today’s ever-changing industry alliances, consortia, associations and working groups. Our offerings to support association management are diverse, comprehensive, and customizable to address all your program’s needs. Contact us today for more information.