Hardcore gamers and avid writers love mechanical keyboards. Unlike the cheap, flimsy keyboards you get with a desktop computer, a mechanical keyboard can take a beating and usually offers pro-level features like backlighting and advanced media controls. But the thing people love best about them is how they feel.
Mechanical keyboards are just that—mechanical. A small switch under each keycap clicks loudly when depressed, an experience that turns typing into a symphony. This tactile responsiveness is a big reason why sales have increased dramatically in recent years. But that popularity has created a problem:
There aren’t enough switches to go around.
The German company Cherry makes the world’s most popular switches. Most of the 57 companies stamping brand names on mechanical keyboards use them. Cherry didn’t see the sudden increase in popularity coming, and underestimated the virulence of the market.”It was, and still is, a challenge for us to keep up with this dramatic increasing demand,” says Michael Schmid, Cherry’s head of PR and marketing.
Das Keyboard, an oldtimer in the business, sold its first mechanical keyboard a decade ago. Founder and CEO Daniel Guermeur saw the scarcity in Cherry switches coming about five years ago. The company, he says, failed to respond to a sudden and unexpected demand. “It seems that Cherry did not understand the real potential of mechanical keyboards as a mainstream consumer product, he says. “In the past, it’s been more focused on industrial keyboards and products.”
A Switch by Any Other Name
Everyone used clicky keyboards until the late 1990s, when companies like Apple and Dell embraced membrane keyboards like the one you’ve probably got under your fingers right now. They use a single pressure pad for all the keys, which makes them easier to package and cheaper to make. Before long, mechanical keyboards became arcane tools beloved by nostalgic purists.
You can attribute their renaissance to an ongoing quest for quality and personalization in a commoditized consumer electronics market. About a decade ago, gamers and enthusiast typists started snapping up mechanical keyboards from Japanese brands like Filco and Topre. Hobbyists discovered rebuilding and modifying old keyboards. Interest, fueled by Internet forums and word of mouth, grew, and Cherry switches in particular became something of a fetish. Retailers couldn’t keep keyboards using them in stock.
As much as the market holds Cherry in high esteem, even top-shelf keyboard brands are now using Asian-made clone switches to get by.
“Some of our partners had to wait for more than one year to get sufficient number of switches,” Schmid says. Established manufacturers and newcomers alike launched mechanical keyboards to cash in on the craze. Cherry quadrupled production in recent years, and is mostly keeping up, but the company’s stumble opened the door to Chinese copycats. As much as people love Cherry switches, even top-shelf brands are using Asian clones to get by.
Keyboard makers also strike deals with Cherry, leaving fewer switches for others. “In the end, we were not able to make everybody happy,” says Schmid, “but we were able to manage demand and supply for almost all of our partners. Unfortunately, not for all of them.”
Some manufacturers don’t have any problem getting switches. “From what we see, Cherry was never short,” says Andrew Ware of keyboard company Corsair. Industry Goliath Razer also hasn’t experienced any delays in production. Das, a much smaller player in the industry, tells a different story.
“The lack of switch availability has limited Das Keyboard’s growth,” Guermeur says. In the past, he says, companies competed for Cherry switches. But now, “supply is sold well ahead of time, between six and 12 months.”
Last year, Das started using Chinese Greetech clones alongside genuine Cherry switches, and sees no problems. “Competitors’ switches are usually better in terms of durability than the Cherry switches since many of them just copied Cherry’s design and improved certain characteristics,” says Guermeur. “For example, Greetech switches are more resistant to corrosion, one of the major issues with mechanical switches.”
Still, the company uses Cherry wherever possible. “Cherry is requested by our customers more than other switches,” he says.
March of the Clones
Kailh, Gateron, and TTC in China; EpicGear in Taiwan; and Omron of Japan; also make Cherry-like switches. Razer and Logitech hire Asian firms to build keyboards they design. Kailh, also known as Kaihua, has been making industrial products since 1990, but companies didn’t start using its switches until the Cherry shortage. “These are the manufacturers that have been able to take full advantage of the switch shortage and make a name for themselves today,” says Guermeur.
Razer’s peripherals manager Ruben Mookerjee says the needs and demands of the gaming community led to improvements in switch designs. “Cherry switches are great, and we’ve always used them,” he says, “but they were designed for the needs of typing and not gaming.” Razer relies upon several suppliers now, including Cherry. “We will offer them in parallel,” Mookerjee says. And that means more people can discover the joy of mechanical keyboards.