About Those MacBook Pro keyboards

Apple recently acknowledged that some of its laptop users are having problems with their keyboards, almost three years after a new “butterfly” mechanism was introduced. It’s a product quality issue that has Apple users understandable upset, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Apple often designs for the user it wants, as opposed to the users it actually has.

Apple’s redesigned the MacBook keyboard three times since its introduction in 2016 and it can’t seem to get this new design right. The new design sports a much lower profile and more limited key travel than past keyboards do. That’s an advance squarely keeping with Apple’s design imperative, which is basically to get the hardware out of the way. Make it as slim – and as invisible – as possible. The problem is that for many Mac owners, the keyboard simply isn’t up to the task. The keys get stuck. Despite the introduction of a new membrane material with the third-generation keyboard in 2018, people are still having problems.

Folks, remember, this ain’t our first rodeo.

Twenty years ago Mac users complained that PowerBook G3 keyboards would leave residue on the screen because of the tight tolerances of the laptop in its closed position, and how it would get compressed in a carrying bag or backpack. Plastic displays were still standard-issue. They’d get damaged over time by the constant friction. The same thing happened to PowerBook G4 screens. At my press briefing with Apple early in my Macworld career, I asked them about the reported issue of screen damage – there were plenty of people buzzing about the issue in newsgroups and other gathering places online. After a pause, the product manager jokingly said they planned to stop selling PowerBooks to people with greasy fingers.

In other words, “You’re holding it wrong.”

This isn’t ancient history, either. In 2013, Apple introduced a completely newly-designed, over-engineered Mac Pro that no one wanted. The turbine design may have been clever engineering, but so was the Power Mac G4 Cube. It’s said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Apple seems condemned to ignore its own mistakes.

Apple’s acknowledged the problem, which is helpful. It’s also set up service programs to cover repair and replacement of the keyboards, but that’s very much a reactive solution. It’ll be interesting to see how Apple tries to get in front of this the next time they refresh their laptop line. My preference is to see them just bin this design entirely and start fresh.

In the interim, I just plan to keep my mid-2015 MacBook Pro going for as long as I can.

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