The Promethean pursuit of a more perfect sound and feel has led modding switches to surge in popularity.
Such widespread switch modding has shaped the switch manufacturing process. Today, manufacturers are producing switches that are factory lubed with tighter housings; this can be traced back to the mods of lubing and filming switches. Due to the switch modding community, stock switches are better than ever.
But what will the future of switch modding look like? Will switch modders always be at the frontier of progressing the switch scene?
In this article, we’ll outline some future visions of what switch modding might look like in relation to mainstream switch manufacturing and how this is a bellwether for the future of custom keyboards in general.
In this view, switch modders will hit a plateau in improving switches. The manufacturers will integrate findings from modders into the manufacturing process. Ultimately, switch development will reach stasis: modding and manufacturing converge.
The advancements that switch modders have made will eventually be used by the switch manufacturers in producing new switches. In addition, there will be a point where we’ve reached peak smoothness, peak thocc, peak tactility, etc. Progress in switches will plateau.
In addition, manufacturers can make stock switches just as good, if not better, than modders. All switches will be factory lubed to perfection; housing tolerances will be tight enough not to warrant filming.
This theory of convergence is most salient if you believe there is a limit to how good a switch can sound and feel. But, if you don’t believe in stagnation within the context of mechanical switches, this theory will not hold true.
In this theory, the switch modding community will always continue to make discoveries that manufacturers eventually adopt.
A theory of hobbyist-led frontierism dictates that switch modders will start the trends that are then integrated into the switch manufacturing process. This future of switches resembles the world of fashion, where influencers set trends, and H&M and Uniqlo bring them to the masses. Applied to switches, mods from keyboard forums gain popularity, and eventually, Gateron and Durock integrate those mods into new switches.
For an example of this phenomenon, let’s look at the modification of breaking-in switches. “Polishing” switches with a machine that presses on them hundreds of thousands of times make them smoother. This is particularly important for linear switches, where frictionless smoothness is vied for. To facilitate switch polishing, the switch modding community has created machines to break in switches.
But now, NovelKeys has a switch called NK Dreams that comes polished out of the box. When customers receive them, they have already been actuated hundreds of thousands of times. This is an example of a mod that has been integrated by manufacturers, which can then be enjoyed by the masses.
In this theory of frontierism, there would be a permanent, dialectical relationship between modding and manufacturing. Modders find improvements; manufacturers eventually implement them.
The alternative theory is that while modders continue to find improvements manufacturers eventually stop catching up to modders. This leads us to the next theory.
In this theory, the switch modding community will make modifications that the manufacturers will never adopt. There’s a hard limit to what manufacturers choose to do. More importantly, modding will continue to progress switches in whatever metric of choice, should it be smoothness, tactility, clackiness, etc.
Here, it’s hard to give examples, because it’s impossible to look into the future and describe something that manufacturers will never do.
However, for the sake of demonstration, let’s talk about using diamond paste in switches, which is something I haven’t seen any manufacturers use so far.
For example, Keebtalk users have been discussing diamond paste for increased smoothness—particularly desired in linear switches. Perhaps this is where manufacturers will draw the line. The masses will not get to enjoy the fruits of the diamond paste-induced smoothness. To get that, you will have to do it yourself.
There is an alternative divergence theory, though, where the roles of the modders and manufacturers are reversed.
In all the scenarios above, it could be said that hobbyists lead the trends. In the future, with the expansion of the hobby and interest in bespoke mechanical switches, it could be the case that manufacturers spend a lot more R&D on innovations that hobbyist tinkerers cannot afford. When that happens, switch manufacturers will outpace switch modders in progressing switches further.
In this circumstance, the modders will have passed the proverbial torch onto manufacturers, who are left with the responsibility of innovating.
The future of switch modding is a microcosm of what the mechanical keyboard scene will look like in the future. In any hobby, it is rare that the “big guys” are learning from the “small guys.” As such, the relationship between switch modders and switch manufacturers is one of a kind. The question of whether or not this relationship will continue is a glimpse at the future of mechanical keyboards.
If in the future, we reach stasis or see manufacturers driving innovation, the future of keyboards could be characterized by pure consumption: think Funko Pops or any hobby mainly characterized by opening your wallet. Because the big guys are the innovators, the keyboard community takes up a more passive role, which is that of consumption.
On the other hand, if the responsibility of innovation still lies in the hands of hobbyist tinkerers, the future of keyboards will retain a more DIY vibe as described in the theory of modder takeoff.
Perhaps the two above visions ultimately are not contradictory and will coexist. You can simply purchase and use the best stock switch option if you'd like. At the same time, there is room for tinkerers to discover new mods to keep them at the forefront of switch advancements. This is what hobbyist-led frontierism would look like.