Macbook Butterfly keyboard
Technology

Why Apple Gave Up On The Butterfly Keyboard

If you’ve been following Apple closely this year then you realize that 2019 could be considered the year of the Mac. Back in June Apple announced the new Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR. While in November they unveiled the 16-inch MacBook Pro. And while both machines feature some incredible new technology, they also feature some familiar old technology. The Mac Pro gave up its unified thermal core technology and compact cylindrical design. Instead reverting back to a more traditional modular design with three cooling fans. And when it came to the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple gave up on the butterfly keyboard mechanism used in every MacBook model since 2015. Instead reverting to the old scissor mechanism.

So why exactly did Apple give up on features like the butterfly keyboard and unified thermal core, after they claimed those technologies made their products better?

It all started in 2015, when the 12 inch MacBook was introduced. Apple wanted the notebook to be the thinnest and lightest they’d ever made. And that’s exactly what the 12 inch MacBook was, coming in at half an inch at its thickest point and weighing just over two pounds. That made it both thinner and lighter than the 11” MacBook Air. But in order to achieve these aggressive specs, Apple had to make some compromises. First, only one USB-C port was included, which forced users to buy adapters in order to connect pretty much anything, including an iPhone.

Also, the keyboard had to be made thinner in order to accommodate the MacBooks design. That’s why Apple created a new butterfly key mechanism that had a lower profile than the traditional scissor mechanism. But when introducing these changes, Apple didn’t admit they were design compromises. Instead, they were features. Apple told us that not only was their butterfly keyboard 40% thinner, but its keys were 4x more stable and 17% larger.

Reviews

Allowing for a satisfying and precise typing experience. But that claim was hard for many to believe, especially after the initial reviews came Dan Ackerman from Cnet wrote “The first time I tried the keyboard, I couldn’t get through even a few sample sentences without several typos, because of the shallow keys and their lower level of tactile feedback.” Andy Vandervell from Trusted Reviews wrote, “Some people won’t like the shallow feel – it didn’t take me long to get up to speed, but I can’t guarantee everyone will adapt as easily.”

Vandervell went on to say, “Arguably the worst thing about the new keyboard is how noisy it is – I’m more aggressive in my typing than typical, so I had to make a conscious effort to type more gently in public spaces.” And that was a complaint echoed by many users, who were annoyed by how loud the butterfly keyboard was, something Apple never mentioned during the MacBooks introduction.

Key Travel

Now, the initial concerns about the butterfly keyboard were only the beginning, as a new issue would make it one of the biggest design mistakes in Apple’s history. You see, because the butterfly mechanism was so thin and had hardly any travel, it was easy for debris to accumulate and eventually force the key to fail. Another issue was that users couldn’t remove the key caps without breaking the butterfly mechanism.

So if a key stopped working, you couldn’t even remove the key cap to try and clean it Instead, you had to have the entire keyboard replaced which could cost $700 out of warranty. And this was bad news for Apple, since they had used the same butterfly mechanism in their new MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models. So if the keyboard was truly faulty, it would be a problem across their entire notebook line, instead of being isolated to just the 12 inch MacBook.

Lawsuit

The issue became widespread in just a couple years and led to a class-action lawsuit being filed in May 2018. Just one month later, Apple acknowledged the problem and launched a repair program for faulty MacBook and MacBook Pro models. Now it’s worth mentioning that Apple tried to remedy the durability issues with their butterfly keyboard. Their first attempt came with the third generation keyboard. Which featured a silicon membrane under the key caps to prevent debris from entering the butterfly mechanism.

This change wasn’t publicly announced by Apple. But it was confirmed privately in an internal service readiness guide for the MacBook Pro. And in with the fourth generation butterfly keyboard. Apple again tried to make the mechanism more durable by switching from a silicon membrane to a nylon one. In addition to changing the form of the thin polymer coating on the bottom of the key switch. But according to iFixit, the fundamental flaw of the butterfly mechanism persisted despite Apple’s attempts to solve the problem.

Gave up on butterfly

So with users complaining about the shallow key travel, high failure rate, and expensive repair costs, in addition to a legitimate class action lawsuit and a multiple failed attempts at solving the issue, Apple finally gave up on the butterfly keyboard and just two months ago introduced the new 16 inch MacBook Pro.

With one of it’s headlining features being a new magic keyboard which uses the old scissor mechanism. Now you’d assume Apple would point out that the new keyboard is more durable. But if you read through their official press release, you’ll notice that durability isn’t mentioned even once. Instead, Apple touts the new keyboard “delivers 1mm of key travel” and “features a physical Escape key and an inverted-“T” arrangement for the arrow keys.”

Both of which are features of their old keyboards from over a decade ago. So although Apple won’t come out and admit their butterfly keyboard was a failed idea that should’ve never seen the light of day, they have made it clear that sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Before the butterfly keyboard Apple had a reputation of making some of the best notebook keyboards on the market. But they tarnished that title in 2015, and it’s going to take years to recover. And as I mentioned at the beginning of the video, this isn’t the first time Apple has had to backtrack on bad design ideas.

Other failed Apple Ideas

The 2013 cylindrical Mac Pro was equally as disastrous, with Apple executive Craig Federighi saying, “I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner.”. Admitting that the Mac Pro’s unified thermal core, which was once touted as an incredible engineering achievement, was actually limiting what the Mac Pro was capable of. That’s why last year Apple announced a new Mac Pro with what’s called a modular design. Where components can easily be accessed, removed and replaced. Now that concept is nothing new, since that’s exactly how every Mac Pro before the cylindrical model was designed.

Now it’s easy to look at these two examples of Apple failing. And jump to the conclusion that the company is somehow less innovative or that they’re being misguided under Tim Cook. Because ever since Steve Jobs left the company in 2011. Fans and haters alike have been hyper critical of nearly every decision they’ve made. Claiming, “Steve Jobs would have never let this happen,” or, “Apple has lost their way.”. But the reality is, Apple has never been perfect. Not under Steve Jobs, and not under Tim Cook.

Two products Apple released under Steve Jobs

Just consider these two products Apple released under Steve Jobs: The Apple USB mouse and the Power Mac G4 Cube. The mouse debuted alongside the original iMac back in 1998. And it was touted by Steve Jobs as “the coolest mouse on the planet.”. And although Jobs may’ve thought so, many iMac users certainly didn’t. They complained about their hand cramping up while using it. And problems orienting the mouse correctly since it was a perfect circle instead of an oval.

In fact, there were even third party accessories like the iCatch that could be attached to the mouse which allowed it to fit in your hand more comfortably. And when it came to the Power Mac G4 Cube, its story is very similar to the cylindrical Mac Pro. Back in 2000, Jobs wanted to create a new, more stylish design for their pro-level desktop computer. And it came in the form of an 8” cube. Just like Phil Schiller bragged that the cylindrical Mac Pro was a fraction of the size of the previous model. Steve Jobs said the same thing about the G4 Cube.

Highlighting its beautiful design and quiet operation. But the reality was that customers were more concerned about price and performance that aesthetics. And since the Power Mac G4 tower was $200 cheaper and included a monitor, sales of the G4 Cube were disappointing. And the product was eventually discontinued just one year later. So while it’s worth pointing out when Apple makes mistakes. It’s also important to understand that those mistakes don’t mean a company is doomed or doesn’t know how to innovate.

After all, a company is run by people, and no one is perfect. We can only hope that Apple makes a genuine effort to correct their mistakes. And learn from them in the future. And judging by the 16 inch MacBook Pro and new modular Mac Pro, I think Apple has proven that they are correcting their mistakes. Even if they don’t always publicly admit to them.

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