The Low End Mac Mailbag

User Mistakes or Mac Mistakes?, Backspace vs. Delete, and It's Too Easy to Zap an Icon in the Dock

Dan Knight - 2007.05.02

We've received a lot of email about 30 Top Mac User Mistakes: How Many Are Apple's Fault? They range from explaining the history of the way various keys are used and marked to the fact that it's too easy to delete an icon from the Dock. For the most part we're dealing with user errors, but Apple's use of "Delete" on the Backspace key not only confuses switchers but is also contrary to ISO standards. - Tip Jar

'30 Mistakes' Are Mostly User Mistakes

Our own Alan Zisman writes:

Good article - and one I'd been thinking of writing, since I have several Windows-users at my work switching. Instead, I emailed them links to your article.

A few comments:

3. Creating endless untitled folders

Yeah, this one is a problem. The Finder should pop up a dialog box every time you create "Untitled Folder" and ask you to name it - perhaps even insist that you do so. Longtime Mac users are used to this behavior, but there's nothing intuitive about making a new folder and not putting a label on it right away.

I'm surprised to see this listed as a Mac problem. I see lots of New Folder, New Folder (2), etc. folders on some Windows users' systems from users who have learned enough to create new folders but haven't learned to give them unique and useful names.

5. Confusing the concept of wallpaper with screensaver

I haven't spent enough time on Windows to understand the problem. Wallpaper is the Windows term for a desktop picture, and a screensaver is a screensaver - not a background image.

Lots of Windows users seem to use these terms interchangeably - but they're the same people who use the term "downloading" when referring to copying a file. I don't think it's a Windows-user issue per se but simply that people are getting computers (at home or at work) without any training - and then misusing vocabulary they've heard but never had explained.

Since the bulk of newbie computer users get Windows systems, it appears to be a Windows-user issue but isn't . . . it's a new user issue.

8. Not using any keyboard shortcuts

Again, if they use keyboard shortcuts on Windows, they'll learn to do the same thing on the Mac. If anything, the Mac makes it easier by displaying keyboard shortcuts in the pulldown menus.

keyboard shortcuts in WindowsMany/most Windows programs do this too . . . in most cases, I believe it's up to the programmers - on both platforms. (See attached Firefox (Win) screen capture.)

10. Renaming desktop icons to random characters because they don't understand the difference between the enter and the return key on Mac. (Enter puts an icon into rename mode).

Huh? I have to admit that I wasn't aware of this, as I usually just click on the icon's name when I want to change it rather than on the icon itself. And I couldn't test it immediately, as I use a Logitech keyboard that may not work the same way as an Apple keyboard.

The funny thing is, after I dug a Mac keyboard out of the basement and plugged it in, I found that both the Return and Enter keys worked exactly the same way. Click on an icon, press either key, and type in a new name. Then hit either key to finish renaming the file.

What do Windows users expect to happen when they single-click on an icon and then hit the Enter or Return key? Double-clicking an icon is the standard way of launching an app in either Windows or the Mac OS.

Single-clicking on an icon and then pressing Enter in Windows will open the program. To rename an icon, click on it to select it, then slowly (slower than double-clicking) click on the icon caption and you can rename it. I haven't run into the listed situation either on Windows or on a Mac.


1. Give us a two-button mouse with two buttons, not a second pseudo-button. (No, it's not on Warne's list, but it should be. How in the world is a new user going to intuit that the Mighty Mouse can function as a two button mouse when there's no visual indication of a second button?)

Equally a problem with the Mighty Mouse and new Macs is that one-button behaviour is the system default; as a result, new users assume they've got a one-button mouse until someone tells them otherwise.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You obviously know a lot more about Windows than I do. You're right - a lot of these are newbie problems, not Mac or Windows problems per se.

I can't quite fathom what Microsoft was thinking by making single-clicking an icon and then hitting Return or Enter do the same thing as a double-click. Seems inefficient.

You're dead on about Mighty Mouse behavior. Not only does it not look like a two-button mouse, it doesn't even act like one unless you have the savvy to open System Preferences, select Keyboard & Mouse, and enable two-button functionality. It's almost like Apple threw all this technology into the new mouse but doesn't want people to use it.


Windows carries over pieces of design from days when mice were not common on PCs. In fact, MS used to bundle Microsoft Mouse hardware along with software like Windows 2.0, Word (the early DOS version), or a paint program. I suspect the behaviour that you find odd (and I find normal) has those roots - you could select an object my moving with the keyboard cursors, then press Enter for its default behaviour (opening a document, running a program, etc.).

Through Windows 3.1, virtually everything in Windows was doable with keyboard alone - even if awkwardly. The top-left icon on the title bar of windows (accessible with Alt-spacebar, if I'm remembering right) included menu items to minimize, maximize, and even resize and move a window - all with keyboard alone. Awkward, but doable.

The rise of the right-click context menu made the use of keyboards in these ways even harder - Microsoft's response was the addition of two new keys to its keyboards; one, the so-called Windows key, seems to have stuck; the second one (which had a logo sort of looking like a context menu) is pretty obscure but seems to have been designed to mimic a right-click. The keyboard on the Dell notebook sitting by my desk lacks that key entirely; the Logitech keyboard on my son's desktop has one of them to the right of the spacebar, but I suspect it's never been pushed.

In the Visual Basic programming environment, there are "tabset" options - the ability to numerically order all the objects in a window or dialogue box being designed so that pressing Tab moves in sequence around the window - again, a remnant of the time when people didn't use the mouse to move from field to field or button to button. In some circumstances - database entry, for instance - it is more efficient to be able to keep your hands on the keyboard without needing to grope around to find the mouse. But it requires more user training.

Backspace vs. Delete and ISO Standards

James David Mason writes:

27. Confusing "delete" with "backspace" (because Apple has two keys named "delete" on the keyboard, one of which does forward delete and the other backward delete. Way to go, usability geniuses).

Yep, Apple has long messed up on this one. It's driven me crazy since the first Mac.

Your Logitech keyboard follows ISO/IEC 9995, the international standard for keyboard layouts. The standard appears to be up to Version 8; it's developed by ISO/IEC JTC1/SC35, which has its headquarters at AFNOR, the French national standards body. There are many national variants on the alphanumeric sections of the keyboard (e.g., for accented character sets and for local variants like the AZERTY keyboard used in France rather than the more common QWERTY), but there's uniformity that the key in the upper right corner is BACKSPACE.

Actually, there are two issues here: One is the layout of the keyboard, and the other is the bit combination produced by the keys. The BACKSPACE key is always mapped (even in Apple's mislabeled version) to the code BS (which obviously comes from BackSpace), Hex 08, and the DELETE key to the code DEL, Hex 7F. These codes go all the way back to ASCII (ANSI X3.4-1967, ISO 646-IRV-1972) and have been carried forwards in all the later coding standards (e.g., ISO 8859). The current coding standards (UNICODE or ISO/IEC 10646) address only the printing characters and leave the control sequences intact from where they were 20+ years ago. (Some of the sequences, like BEL, actually go back to Teletype usage.)

I've always been bothered that the Mac keyboard emitted the code for BS and also operated as a Backspace key, but they put "delete" on it. I've always written it off as probably being in the class with Steve Jobs's insistence on one-button mice and his hatred of fans in computers, something else that was wrong with the original Mac and why we all hung external fans on things down through the Plus. (I had a Plus at work; an SE/30 was the first at home, and I still have that, along with a bunch of later things.)

I wish I could give you the text of the standards, but ISO is really nasty about copyrights and won't put the things up on the 'Net. There is a pretty good page about the control sequences at

James David Mason
Chairman, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC34

(We're the folks who created SGML and so gave birth to HTML and XML. Macs are the most common computers in the committee.)


Thanks for writing - and it's great to hear Macs have made such inroads with an international standard body.

I can't find much info on the Apple II and Apple III keyboards, but it seems they did have a Delete key. The Lisa keyboard definitely had a Backspace key where Apple now has Delete - and the same is true of the original Macintosh keyboard. It looks like the change came when Apple introduced the Extended Keyboard in 1987.

Why Apple broke with convention - both industrywide and their own earlier Macs - to name the backspace key Delete seems to be unknown. It wasn't a Steve Jobs thing, as he was gone long before the ADB keyboards, the first to do this, came into being.


Jim Mason responds:

I've always found Apple's eccentricities with keyboards and mice mildly annoying, though not enough to keep me from using/buying their stuff. I'm a touch typist, so I just ignore what's printed on the keys. The ADB Extended Keyboard feels good enough. I use third-party mice, even with ADB machines.

Maybe somebody at Apple got allergic to Ctrl-Alt-Del and decided not to have any of those named on the keyboard.

You have more resources on old Macs than I do; my oldest machine is the SE/30, and it has an ADB Extended Keyboard, as does the old 8500 I have at work. My main machine at home is one of the late PB G4 15" things, though I also have a modified WallStreet; my wife has a much modified B&W G3 that now has a 1 GHz G4 in it. Still, I think calling that key "Delete" is dumb when its action is BS. Maybe somebody at Apple got allergic to Ctrl-Alt-Del and decided not to have any of those named on the keyboard.

I have a Mac because I like the machine and it runs Unix. I've been in computing about 30 years, and I've run just about anything except IBM mainframes. I grew up on Unix, first on Dec PDP-11s, then Suns. PCs are just something I've put up with because that's what my employers use.

In my ISO committee it used to be that most people had Toshibas, then it was Dells. Now the most common are Macs (iBook, PB G4, MacBook Pro), followed by ThinkPads. One of the most recent converts used to run Linux on Dells. He got burned by Dell once too often, and now he has a MacBook 17".

Because we're international, I see a lot of gear that isn't sold in North America (like Siemens, Samsung and Panasonic laptops), but Macs and ThinkPads are pretty well distributed around the world.

Jim Mason

Share Your Thoughts with Apple

Abraham Brody writes:

Dear Mr. Knight,

I saw your article on Low End Mac and thought it very well done. I would like to add one more thing to that article. Direct people to <> so they can suggest the features they want the most.


Thanks for the suggestion, Abraham. I'll share it in our next mailbag column.


Hitting Enter on an Icon in Windows

Danny K writes:


In the 30 Top Mac User Mistakes, you wrote:

What do Windows users expect to happen when they single-click on an icon and then hit the Enter or Return key? Double-clicking an icon is the standard way of launching an app in either Windows or the Mac OS.

The answer is that when Windows users hit Enter on an icon, it opens - if it's a document, it opens the registered application. If it's a shortcut (alias on the Mac), it opens whatever is attached to the shortcut.

Danny K

Better Keyboard Markings Found on Other Keyboards

John Muir writes:


UK keyboard detailI never realised Apple's American keyboards were so confusingly labeled when it comes to delete keys. In Britain, Apple have been using a backspace graphic (along with the rest of the industry) since what seems to be forever. A quick Google for a good resolution Apple UK keyboard returned this:

I knew that the option key is written "option" on US keyboards already, which seems a bit strange as its single character graphic seems clear enough to me and features in all of the Mac's menus. In fact I think it would things clear up if option just had that symbol on it (no "option" or "alt") and command was labelled with just the clover symbol instead of also bearing an apple. There are surprisingly many Mac users out there who call the keys "alt" and/or "apple", which is needless confusion.

There is generally a preference for graphics over textual designs in Britain, which probably explains why all keyboards have had backspace marked that way here at least since the 1980s. Our roadsigns are also as non-wordy as possible (though not always for the better).

As for "mistake 22", I think it's meant to be the "puff of smoke" action, which happens when dragging app icons from the Dock. This can seem strange to new users, especially since it happens without a question and can be triggered accidentally via fairly small mouse movements. I found it a bit odd when I switched some years ago too.

John Muir


Thanks for sharing the info on the UK Mac keyboard. On the one hand, marking keys with graphics is simpler and more intuitive than putting words on them. On the other hand, it's a lot easier to write about the Delete, Backspace, Enter, Return, Tab, Command, Option, or Control key as the graphics on the keycaps aren't part of the character set.

I like the graphics used for Page Up and Page Down, but my first reaction to the Home (arrow pointing to upper left) and End (arrow pointing to lower right) keys is mixed. That said, I've been using keyboards with Home, End, Page Up, etc. keys since the first IBM PCs shipped in 1981, so it takes a little time to adapt to change. (You should have seen my initial struggles with the Mac when I was a confirmed DOS user!)

Thanks for your thoughts on "mistake 22" - it shouldn't be that easy to remove something from the Dock. Apple usability experts, are you listening?



You're quite right about the Home and End arrows, and indeed the whole question of how to write and even say the names of keys. I suppose it's a matter of first introduction. We have signs for "no left turn" and "maximum speed 40" and "roadworks/construction ahead" too, which are just graphics instead of the words, though we all know what to call them. I guess it's a matter of seeing and hearing these things separately, but knowing they are just the one idea.

In the 80s I started out on a TRS-80, Commodore VIC 20, and BBC Micro, and from what I remember their keys were more wordy than things are now. Especially the old habit where manufacturers would squeeze long words onto the same small key caps. Differently sized keys are one of the better legacies of the IBM PC . . . if that was even where they came from.

I guess what I'd like to see most is Apple drop the "alt" tag on option and the Apple logo on command, instead calling the keys "Option" and "Command" in print, with the two symbols also placed on the keys. Home and End seem to be less of a problem, for whatever reason. People here remember what and where they are. I imagine it's simply that there's only one name for Home and one for End!

John Muir

Too Easy to 'Poof' Something Off the Dock

Peter Blier says:

Hi Dan-

On this point:

22. Inadvertant [sic] click-drags and removing programs from the dock in the process.


I think the author is commenting on how easy it to mistakenly remove something from the Dock. If you accidentally drag an app off the Dock, its icon goes "Poof." Disconcerting and frustrating, to say the least. The Finder should ask you to confirm!

- Peter Blier


Accidentally Deleting an Icon from the Dock Too Easy

Ed Hurtley writes:

The vast majority I fully agree with.

Number 22 you give a "huh?" to.

What I read that as is when people accidentally drag icons off their Dock. They then think that the application is gone. I have seen many novice OS X users think that every Application is on the dock. "If it disappears from the dock, it must be gone."

For example, my daughter plays on our desktop Mac quite regularly, often renaming icons (thanks to "Enter enters icon rename mode") and dragging icons around, including off the Dock. I then have to put them back on the Dock or else my wife doesn't know where her Address Book went.


Thanks for sharing your real world experience with this issue!


'Home' and 'End' in Microsoft Word


There never was a version of Microsoft Word that didn't use a mouse. I'm looking at the original MS Mouse, hanging like a trophy on my wall. It was sold in a package with Word 1.0, which needed a mouse to be workable. Except for the basic click to locate the insertion point, mouse usage in Word 1.0 was unlike anything in either the current Macintosh GUI or Windows. It was more influenced by early, pre-X Windows, Unix GUIs. Clicking in the scroll bar, for example, could mean "Scroll to here" or "Scroll this proportional amount", depending on how it was done. But Word was never a keyboard-only, character-based thingie like WordStar (which actually came from CP/M, where I first encountered it on an Osborne 1), DisplayWrite, MultiMate, or WordPerfect.

The behavior of the "Home" and "End" keys also predates Word. I had that sort of action on various kinds of terminals with full-screen editors running under Unix in the early 80s. It's the top/bottom of document that's eccentric usage (like labelling BACKSPACE "Delete").

Actually, MS didn't create Word. They bought it, just as they bought PC-DOS. Word was a rewriting of the text editor for the Xerox Alpha workstation, and it had a mouse there. The mouse came with it when the author left Xerox and came to MS. The Alpha was the ancestor of the Star, which was the primary influence on the creation of the Macintosh GUI. The mouse was, of course, invented by Doug Engelbart, long before Xerox PARC adopted it.

Jim Mason


My memory is a bit vague, but the Internet is a great source of information. The original version of Word was semi-WYSIWYG - it could display bold and italic - which definitely gave it a leg up on the competition. And it did indeed support the Microsoft Mouse.

Zenith ZP-150What I was recalling was the Zenith ZP-150, an early and largely forgotten portable computer (introduced 1984 at US$1,995 and blown out at US$699 in the Fall 1997 Heath/Zenith catalog - I worked for a H/Z store and remember it well) that had Microsoft Works built into it. The word processing module was called Word, which helps explain my confusion. This was a completely keyboard driven word processor.

Thanks for your pre-PC history lesson. While I can understand using an End key to go to the end of a line rather than the end of a document or end of a screen, I can't grasp the sense of using a Home key to go to the beginning of a line. There should have been a better way to label it - and "start" would only be confusing.

Maybe they should have come up with separate keys for these functions: Top to bring to you the start of a document, Bottom to bring you to the end, End to bring you to the end of the current line, and who knows what to bring you to the start of the current line.


'Delete' Makes More Sense than 'Backspace'

I've been a long time reader of LEM and love the site. However, I disagree with your point #27 in one of your more recent articles, "30 Top Mac User Mistakes."

I completely agree with Apple's use of "Delete" on both "delete" keys. The use of "backspace" can be interpreted in three ways:

  1. A literal backspace. So it shifts all characters on the current line over by one character, inserting a space. The regular "space" inserts a space and shifts the cursor one position to the right. A "backspace" should insert a space and shift the cursor one position to the left (essentially leaving it where it started off), hence "backward space" or "backspace".
  2. Delete, which is what you think it should be
  3. A virtual nondestructive delete; functionality like this would be the same as hitting "cursor left".

Since we want to delete a character, using the term "delete" makes perfect sense. Apple saved themselves by adding a directional arrow to the "other" delete key, which indicates the direction of deletion.


Hi Patrick,

You raise some good points. In the old days of typewriters, the backspace key just moved you back one space - nothing changed on the page you'd typed, which is similar to your third option.

I have never heard of a backspace key being used to insert a space to the right of the cursor, nor do I think anyone would expect that behavior of a Backspace key. That said, there's nothing intuitive about a key marked Backspace deleting content.

The only problem with Delete is that in the rest of the computing world, that means deleting the character to the right of the cursor. Perhaps the ultimate solution is to dispense with text labels completely and use icons to mark these keys.


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Dan Knight has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. Mailbag columns come from email responses to his Mac Musings, Mac Daniel, Online Tech Journal, and other columns on the site.

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