The final saga of Apple’s ill-fated keyboards

Apple has finally completed the purging of their defective butterfly keyboards from all models of MacBooks. With the introduction this week of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, their three lines of notebooks now have their “Magic” keyboard, based on the desktop Keyboard with the same name. The new models are the 2020 versions of the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the Late 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro.

It’s been five years since the first butterfly keyboard debuted on a new ultra-light 12-inch MacBook in 2015. Slimmer, lighter and sleeker than any notebook, it was almost too good to believe.

Unfortunately, as an early adopter, I purchased one, impressed by its 2-pound weight, within a few ounces of an iPad. As a frequent traveler – with many international trips – it was a delight to travel with, even if the keyboard was a bit of a compromise.

That delight turned to disappointment less than a year later. This “marvel of engineering,” as described by both Apple and product reviewers, began to develop keyboard issues. While the keyboard never had the full key travel of previous designs, some of the keys failed to register or registered twice.

Other keys began to feel mushy with no discernible click. While there were scattered reports of problems on the tech blogs, Apple responded that the keyboard was reliable and was unaware of any issues.

It should be noted that before any product is shipped, engineers subject new products to endurance testing to determine issues beforehand, and I have no doubt that Apple knew exactly what they were shipping. It’s design malpractice not to test.

I later made contact with an Apple engineer that worked on the keyboard team, and he confided to me that the butterfly keyboard was part of Apple’s industrial design initiative, spearheaded by Jony Ive, to make every Apple product as thin as possible, the same initiative that led to undersized batteries in phones, and the infamous bendable iPhone 6 phones. The new thinner butterfly keyboard was the inevitable result of compromising function for aesthetics, where artistry triumphed over functionality. It was Ive’s obsession with thinness. Back then there was no one to push back, Steve Jobs had passed away years earlier and Tim Cook was not a product person that was sensitive to the tradeoffs..

In their effort to make their products thinner, Apple also made their products much more difficult to repair. Instead of parts being replaceable and recyclable, such as the keyboard and batteries, half the computer needs to be replaced, even for one defective key.

That’s because many of the parts are glued in place and not screwed or snapped together to save a fraction of a millimeter in thickness here and there. This also has a negative impact on the products’ recyclability and its environmental impact. Thus, the perfect storm was created: when one grain of sand causes a key to fail, the keyboard cannot be replaced, and the repair now costs about five-hundred dollars.

Two things are remarkable about all of this. For five years Apple continued to design and sell new notebooks using this defective keyboard, while knowing they had a problem. Eventually all MacBooks had the butterfly keyboard.

The other remarkable occurrence is that Apple maintained its reputation for producing some of the best hardware of any company in the world. Their stock price climbed and their business grew rapidly over this time, although the growth of their computer division trailed most of their other products. Had this been any other company, it would have been much more disruptive to their reputation.  But Apple Is the teflon company of our age.

Apple’s strategy consisted of denial, powered by their effective PR department, and never directly admitting they had a serious problem. Even this year they said the problem has only effected a small minority of users. But after considerable pressure and some very embarrassing reviews, Apple did the correct thing. They extended the keyboard warranty to four years.

They also rolled out minor changes to the keyboard, such as adding a plastic barrier, never saying it fixed the problem (because it never did), but leaving the impression that newer buyers might not experience the same issues.

I eventually went through three replacement keyboards, a defective motherboard, and a few attempted keyboard repairs at my Apple store. The last replacement was made in January when I was several months beyond the four year warranty and paid $180 (negotiated down from twice that amount). A repair, I reasoned, would allow me to delay a new purchase until the design was fixed.

Last month, eighty days later, my new keyboard failed once again, 10 days before the 90-day warranty expired. The spacebar became intermittent in about one out three presses.

I called Apple and they extended the 90-day warranty until I could get the computer to an Apple store, and I thought I could manage for the time being. But the spacebar became worse and completely failed. I reached out to Apple on Twitter this time, and they got back to me and asked me to send it in for repairs.

I reluctantly agreed, but what I will get back is my computer with another unreliable keyboard that I expect to fail sooner than later.  Just before I was to mail it in, the computer alerted me with a “service battery message.” A diagnosis over the phone indicated the replaced batteries were not functioning, causing the computer to abruptly turn off, even while on AC. Apple said not to worry, they will fix that along with the keyboard, all at no cost. Apple sent me a prepaid shipping package the next day. Three days after sending it in I had it back in my hands fully repaired.

I’ll be purchasing a new MacBook Pro with the Magic keyboard to replace my five year old MacBook. Some might say I’m crazy, but in spite of all of the trouble I’ve had, in spite of Apple’s failure to admit their mistakes, and in spite of unnecessary expense and inconvenience, Apple was always available to listen and try to make things right. And their customer support structure is second to none.

While bad designs occasionally happen, it’s important for the company to accept responsibility. They made a terrible design mistake, eventually fixed it, and hopefully learned a lesson. While Cook may not have design experience, he’s set the policy for how customers are treated.

This past year Jony Ive has left the company and their former head of manufacturing now oversees new product development. While their products have become a little thicker, they are more reliable.



by Phil Baker