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Background:

Multimedia/Internet keys are additional function keys on PC keyboards that either invoke specific applications like browser, e-mail, media player, etc. or invoked certain function for these applications. They are to be distinguished from ordinary function keys as they are labelled with specific tasks like opening a URL, changing sound volume or alike.

They did show up in great numbers in late 1998 and brought a certain hype, which faded fast in the early 2000s. Here's an especially 'pretty' unit:

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Not only featuring multimedia keys and many labels, but as well made with a case copying the translucent style made popular by the G3 IMac ... another hype of the late 1998,

Technical they were simply additional scancodes handled by Windows (or background in general) to start either application/bring it to foreground or be forwarded to the fitting application as messages to invoke functions.

Question: Which were the first keyboards to include dedicated keys to invoke an internet browser and/or similar functions.

So far everything I know points to Microsoft (see "Answer" below), but was there anyone going that way before or was it really MS' hardware department that started all of this?

Please Note: This question is about keyboards (PS/2, USB) for IBM PC compatible machines and Windows and focuses on browser invocation. I don't mind additional information, but only if they fit the basic idea, so Commodore's Plus4 should not apply.

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    It might be helpful to add why this question was considered 'Missing Effort' / 'Being Unclear' or 'Not Useful' by the downvoter. Similar for the closing vote, as it's clearly about historic development of more than 20 years ago. Given, it's about PCs which aren't really cool :) – Raffzahn Aug 24 at 13:56
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    @peterh-ReinstateMonica You lost me, what development and direction? PC in general? Well, I'd agree a lot, as these keyboards were a joke (for most parts) I was quite laughing about (and still do). None the less, it's one of the many things that have been. I wouldn't have thought about, except a friend asked me yesterday (IRL) and I couldn't give a definite answer (told him a bit about Next and Sun and Apple, but not really when it caught on for the PC and who initiated it. – Raffzahn Aug 24 at 14:38
  • I guess it could be considered borderline on topic; but I think not many feel any kind of nostalgia about a random PS/2 or USB keyboard or Wintel machines generally so it's not exactly "retro" as I understand the term. More like "old". – OmarL Aug 24 at 15:16
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    Nostalgia is not mentioned in the guidelines (retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic), so I don't think that's a good reason to close this question. However, this question does pertain to modern hardware still in use (albeit the history of that hardware). I'll leave the nuances of "on-topic" to others. – Jim Nelson Aug 24 at 19:12
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    Multimedia keyboards had a different meaning at first ;-). – Stephen Kitt Aug 25 at 10:49
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Not an Answer, but my knowledge so far:

  • Microsoft extended the scancodes with the 1994 Microsoft natural Keyboard in 1994 to include Windows and Menue (application) keys.

  • With the PC97 guidelines these became a requirement for all (PC97-) standard configurations (See the p.182 in Chapter 14 of the PC 97 Hardware Design Guide).

  • PC97 included as well a definition for an Entertainment PC97 which mentions media keys to be added to an (optional) remote (See p.189 of the above document).

  • With Windows 98 these scancodes were supported by default.

  • During 1998 essentially all manufacturers added 'Multimedia' or 'Internet' Keyboards.

    • Microsoft with the Microsoft Internet Keyboard (they also took it over the edge with their Office Keyboard)

    • IBM had the Rapid Access Keyboard

    • Logitech had their Internet Keyboard

    • Compaq's Easy Internet Keyboard even went all the way to include a specific Altavista key and another one to call Yahoos "What's cool".

  • I do not know if there was already support in Windows 95, but Logitech states that their keyboard supports the browser keys with Win95

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    It might be valuable to learn why this write up was considered 'Not useful' by the downvoter. – Raffzahn Aug 24 at 13:21
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    I think it is correct to trace this functionality back to the addition of a "meta key" for Windows in 1994. This was something sorely missing for years, and already present for a long time on other systems from the 1980s. – Brian H Aug 24 at 14:47
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    I actually cannot see why the introduction of the "Windows" and "Menu" keys in PC98 would have caused the "Multimedia key" introduction. – tofro Aug 25 at 8:10
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    @tofro Not caused, but preceded - as they were the first keys introduced by Microsoft. – Raffzahn Aug 25 at 9:28
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    @hippietrail That's the whole point of the question. Was there someone doing this before Microsoft, if yes, who was it, when and what keyboard. – Raffzahn Aug 25 at 9:29
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On the hardware side of things, I suspect that the first models were the Microsoft Internet Keyboard and the Logitech Internet Keyboard, both launched (as far as I can tell) in 1999. Andries Brouwer’s list of scancodes provides a comprehensive list of keyboards implementing multimedia scancodes, but it’s not easy to determine launch dates for all of them...

On the software side of things, the story is quite complex. Support for early multimedia keyboards, and even pre-Windows 95 support for “Windows 95” keyboards (with the Windows and “application” keys), was implemented in add-on device drivers before it became part of device drivers included with the operating system itself.

In Microsoft’s case, this is IntelliType, which supported versions of Windows going back to 3.1 and NT, and is mentioned in New Key Support for Microsoft® Windows® Operating Systems and Applications. Pre-95 support is quite comprehensive: the Windows key brings up the task manager, and with IntelliType 1.1 (released to support 95, but still supporting older versions of Windows), the application key brings up the context menu, if any (by simulating a right-button click!). IntelliType had provisions for OEM licensing (by other keyboard manufacturers), and for multimedia-style shortcuts, but using Windows + number keys:

Ten Windows logo keys combinations have been reserved for OEM use. These keys can be used by OEMs to provide keyboard hotkey controls for Speaker Volume, Monitor/LCD Brightness or Contrast, Password or other value added functions.

Logitech and Compaq had similar drivers (Logitech iTouch, and Compaq Easy Access).

Operating system support for client applications in Windows was provided in Windows Me and Windows 2000, with the addition of a number of virtual key codes and the WM_APPCOMMAND window message. This allows various “extra” commands to be handled in applications, and unsurprisingly, ended up determining the keys available on multimedia keyboards: it covers audio equalisation and volume changes, email handling (in detail!), browser navigation, etc. This probably came from remote-control support, and resulted in keyboards in the early 2000s with a large remote-control’s worth of extra keys, regardless of their actual usefulness (who needs extra copy/cut/paste keys on a keyboard?). Thanks to Windows’ message-handling architecture, the messages can be generated by a variety of sources, including (with device driver support) keyboards, remote controls, extra buttons on mice, etc. IntelliType can detect applications which support this message, and will adjust its behaviour accordingly (e.g. in “media select” mode).

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I'm trying to tie that to Keyboards produced (or rather, branded) by Microsoft themselves, as I would assume the keyboard and OS guys in MS talk to each other:

  • The "Microsoft Natural Keyboard" (1994) did introduce the new Menu and Windows keys - It didn't have any multimedia keys.
  • The next iteration, the "Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite" (1998) messed up the cursor keys and the complete navigational block, but didn't have any multimedia keys.
  • The "Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro" (1999) was the first to introduce a row of 16 additional blue multimedia and power management keys. The fact that it needed specific drivers ("Intellitype") to support these keys on Windows before Vista hints that these scancodes were not considered in earlier systems.
  • The "Microsoft Natural Multimedia Keyboard" (2002) got rid of the row of nondescript blue buttons for multimedia functions and replaced them with a new arrangement of keys that had icons on them.
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  • The MS departments at least at one point were very separate and very competitive. I've read stories of several silly things that originated in the OS guys wanting things one way and guys doing major apps like Word and Excel or such wanting things another way. So I'm sure it was the same between the software and hardware groups too. – hippietrail Aug 25 at 9:22
  • @hippietrail In dubio, pro reo, please – tofro Aug 25 at 22:30
  • I had a Microsoft Office keyboard from 2001 which was a behemoth, with a scroll wheel on the left and dedicated cut/copy/paste keys. I loved that keyboard so much ... amazon.com/Microsoft-E17-00002-Office-Keyboard/dp/B00005NVBO – Scott Earle Aug 26 at 8:25

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