Apple’s ultra-low travel “butterfly keyboard” is facing a reckoning following renewed criticism from the Wall Street Journal, prompting Apple to issue an official apology in late March. “We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry,” Apple said in a statement, adding that “The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”
That conceit is receiving pushback from Ruby on Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson, a developer at project management application firm Basecamp, who claims that “many people simply do not contact Apple when their MacBook keyboards fail. They just live with an S key that stutters or a spacebar that intermittently gives double,” concluding that “Apple never sees these cases, so it never counts in their statistics.”
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In an internal survey of Basecamp employees, six of 13 third-generation keyboard owners–users of 2018-revision MacBook Pro systems–indicated their keyboards have failed, with 30% dealing with keyboard issues now, though Hansson notes that “If you include all the people who used to have issues, but went through a repair or replacement process, the number would be even higher.”
Hansson backed up that “anecdata,” as he called it, with a Twitter poll finding that half of users are simply living with it, and just 11% have taken the system in for repairs, a result that “has remained remarkably stable all the way from 200 responses up to 3,400,” Hansson noted on Twitter.
The problem with repairing butterfly keyboards
Though users typically report problems with either the space bar or just an individual key, repairing individual keys on these keyboards is a practical impossibility, due to the fragility of the butterfly switch mechanism holding the key in place. Replacing just the keyboard itself is similarly a non-starter, as the entire keyboard is bonded with the top case, requiring full replacement.
Apple attempted to mitigate this problem in the third-generation butterfly keyboards. iFixit found a thin silicone overlay placed around the butterfly switches for each key in their teardown of the 2018 MacBook Pro. Apple’s official explanation for this, in a press release, was that these systems have “an improved third-generation keyboard for quieter typing,” though some users contend that the butterfly keyboards are louder than previous MacBook Pro keyboards.
A longstanding problem
Apple has faced a consistent stream of criticism for the keyboards, which were first introduced with the Retina MacBook in 2015. The keyboards either fail to register keystrokes, or register the same keystrokes twice, due to dust or other particles becoming trapped in the butterfly switch mechanism engineered to reduce the thickness of MacBooks. A group of aggrieved customers filed a class action lawsuit against Apple in May over the keyboards.
In June 2018, Apple introduced a keyboard repair program, which covers repairs for MacBooks with malfunctioning keyboards up to four years from the purchase date. Prior to this, for users out of warranty, replacement of the top case was $350 for the MacBook, and $700 for the MacBook Pro.
Developers, creative professionals, and the tech press have been unanimous in their criticism of the keyboard, with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber–a noteworthy longtime Apple user–calling them “the worst products in Apple history… doing lasting harm to the reputation of the MacBook brand,” in response to the story in the Wall Street Journal. In October 2017, Casey Johnson of The Outline declared “the new MacBook keyboard is ruining my life,” in the first high-profile op-ed arguing against the keyboards.
For more on Apple, check out the Apple Developer Program: what professionals need to know, and Apple’s biggest flops of all time, from AirPower to Bendgate to the Newton.