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Forever mothballed: In memoriam Apple Butterfly Keyboard (2015-2020)

At last, we can write headlines with all the letters intact

For a company defined by design and attention to detail, the Butterfly keyboard was a tremendous humiliation for Apple. Conceived in 2015, it replaced the previous scissor-switch mechanism for one with a smaller profile, allowing Cupertino to continue shrinking already-svelte laptops.

The first MacBook to carry the Butterfly Keyboard was 2015's 12-inch MacBook, which Apple subsequently discontinued last year. Introducing the device, Apple marketing veep Bill Schiller lauded the Butterfly's precision over previous scissor-based mechanisms, saying it was "four times more stable" and promised a "beautiful typing experience".

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The Butterfly mechanism was also 40 per cent thinner than the previous scissor-based keys. It accomplished this by reducing the amount of travel needed to register a key.

The problem is, you need some travel on a keyboard. Firstly, it feels good. There's a reason why typing on a touchscreen feels so unfulfilling, and it's because there's no physical response (save for the occasional haptic vibration) to let you know when you've pressed a key.

The Butterfly keyboard had as little as 0.7mm of travel. The so-called Magic Keyboard (the magic being it works) – which shipped on pre-2015 Mac laptops, and has since returned across the firm's computing line – has around 1mm of travel. A decent mechanical keyboard will offer anywhere between 2mm and 5mm of travel.

Typists complained about the "flatness" of the Butterfly keyboard. Earlier models were also notoriously loud, registering almost 12 decibels higher than the current-generation 16-inch MacBook Pro, which uses the scissor-based Magic Keyboard.

Those problems, however, are relatively easy to live with. It's not hard to buy a better pair of noise-cancelling headphones, or adjust your muscle memory to cope with a thinner keyboard. The real trouble came when it emerged that the Butterfly keyboard was terribly fault-prone.

With just 0.7mm of travel between keys, it was far too easy for debris to lodge itself under a keycap, causing them to become stuck. Key presses would fail to register, or would register multiple times.

This problem reached a head in 2017, when former Outline journalist Casey Johnston penned a blog post describing her woes with Apple's latest in keyboard tech. The post, titled "The New Macbook Keyboard is Ruining My Life", catalogued Johnston's repeated visits to the Genius Bar, and described an epidemic of bust laptops that, at that point, Apple had failed to properly acknowledge.

Later that year, musician Jonathan Mann published a song describing his ongoing woes with the Butterfly keyboard on his MacBook Pro called: "I am pressing the spacebar and nothing is happening."

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It also didn't help that Apple had designed the Butterfly keyboard in a way that was almost impossible for users to self-repair. The keycaps and underlying mechanisms were fragile, with some keys – particularly the spacebar – more so.

Consequently, Apple's approach to repairing bust units involves replacing the entire top case of the machine, which includes a glued-in battery, speakers, and other crucial components.

"There is no such thing as replacing an individual key or just the keyboard," wrote Johnston. "The path from 'a piece of dust' to '$700 repair' is terrifyingly short."

Apple's response to the backlash was typical Cupertino, insofar as it failed to acknowledge the existence of a critical design flaw across its entire portable computer line, minimising it as something affecting a small handful of users. It wasn't as openly contemptuous as Steve Jobs' infamous "You're holding it wrong" line, but it wasn't far off.

Over five years, it quietly reworked the concept, adding polymer membranes designed to catch debris before it could interfere with the keyswitch mechanism. For the most part, these failed to resolve the overarching problem, which was caused by an almost non-existent amount of key travel.

In 2018, it finally launched a service programme that would give affected users free replacement keyboards, even if they hadn't stumped up for the AppleCare extended warranty. That came just one month after peeved users filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. Separately, the firm also advised users to try and dislodge debris by using canned air – a tactic that frequently failed to resolve the problem.

Since 2019, and starting with the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has gradually phased out the Butterfly mechanism from its laptop lineup. That process was completed this week, with the launch of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The reputational damage is done. Influential Apple commentator John Gruber described the mechanism as one of "the worst products in Apple history" – a lineup that includes the Newton, the Cube G4, and the repetitive strain-inducing "puck" mouse.

Five years ago, you could have argued that Apple had the best industrial design of any consumer technology company. Not any more. "MacBooks should have the best keyboards in the industry; instead they're the worst," said Gruber. "They're doing lasting harm to the reputation of the MacBook brand."

As Elton John once crooned, "Sorry seems to be the hardest word." That's especially true when it comes to Apple, which has yet to formally disavow this catastrophic design. And it's still unclear whether the firm has learned its lesson when it comes to repairability. The keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro is riveted to the upper case of the machine, making it almost impossible to service without simultaneously replacing other components, driving the cost of repairs northward as a result.

Still, at least you can now eat a cronut at your desk without worrying about subsequent trips to the Genius Bar. ®

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