Apple has finally completed the purging of their defective butterfly keyboards on all of their current models of MacBooks. With the introduction this week of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, their three lines of notebooks are now using what they call a Magic keyboard, based on the desktop version of the same name. The new models are the 2020 versions of the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro.
It’s been five years since the first butterfly keyboard debuted on their new ultra-light 12-inch MacBook in 2015. Slimmer, lighter and sleeker than any notebook, it was too good to believe.
Unfortunately, as an early adopter, I purchased one, awed by the 2-pound notebook, nearly the same weight as 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.
However, that delight turned to frustration 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.
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. It was the inevitable result of compromising function for aesthetics, where artistry triumphed over functionality. Back then there was no one to push back, Steve Jobs had passed away years earlier and Tim Cook was not a product guy that understood the damage being caused.
In their effort to make their products thinner, Apple also made their products much more difficult to repair. Instead of parts being replaceable, such as the keyboard or batteries, one half of 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 in to save a fraction of a millimeter in thickness here and there. So the perfect storm that occurred is 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 build and sell new notebook models with 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 steadily over this time. It should be noted, the growth of their computer products trailed most of their other products. Had this been any other company, it would have been much more disruptive to their reputation. 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 minority of users (which could be 49%). But after considerable pressure and embarrassing reviews, Apple did the correct thing. They extended the keyboard warranty to four years. Along the way they rolled out minor changes to the keyboard, never saying it fixed the problem (because it never did), but leaving the impression that newer buyers might not experience the same issues.
In my case, I eventually went through three replacement keyboards, a defective motherboard, and a few attempted repairs at an Apple store. The last replacement was in January when I was several months beyond the four year warranty and paid $180 (negotiated down from twice that amount with my sob story). Last month, eighty days later, my new keyboard failed once again, 10 days within the 90-day warranty. The spacebar stopped working reliably.
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. But the spacebar got worse and failed to work at all. 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, 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 at no cost.
In the meantime Ill be purchasing a new MacBook Pro with the working keyboard. 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.