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Apple has had a big keyboard problem for a few years now, sparking petitions and class-action lawsuits from irate users who have found the keyboards on their shiny new MacBooks suddenly failing to work as designed in the longer-term, with keys randomly becoming unresponsive a year or two after purchase, even after multiple repairs.
At the heart of the controversy is Apple’s “butterfly keyboard” design that it adopted in 2015 for its then-new 12-inch MacBook, and then later its 2016 MacBook Pro lineup. After the onslaught of customer complaints, Apple eventually offered a free repair program for affected keyboards last year, while also trying a subtle third-generation redesign of the butterfly keyboard that also failed to live up to its expectations, resulting in an expansion of the previous repair program to include 2018 and even the recently-announced 2019 models.
The main problem with the butterfly keyboards was that small particles like crumbs could get into the keys, causing them to fail. Apple’s third-generation version of the keyboard, introduced with its 2018 MacBook Pros, added a thin silicone barrier behind each key to prevent dust from getting into the keys, but it doesn’t appear to have been enough, and it’s worth noting that the keyboard also suffered from failure due to issues with heat buildup. Although Apple says its 2019 MacBook Pro keyboards use “new materials,” it’s still the same third-generation design, and Apple’s decision to include those units in its latest repair program suggests that they company isn’t optimistic that it’s going to solve the previous reliability problems.
Apple Goes Back to the Drawing Board
Despite numerous attempts by Apple to tweak its butterfly keyboards to avoid these issues, it looks like the company is finally willing to admit that the overall design has been an abject failure, and it’s going back to the drawing board to try a different approach.
According to a research note by well-respected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo shared by 9to5Mac and MacRumors, Apple has been working on a new keyboard design based on scissor switches that could find its way into new MacBooks as soon as this fall, starting with the 2019 MacBook Air, and then later expanding into the 2020 MacBook Pro lineup.
Scissor switches provide greater durability and longer key travel, and while it’s not a new idea — it’s the technology Apple used in its pre-2015 MacBooks — according to Kuo this particular implementation will be an entirely new design never before seen in a MacBook, with glass fibre used to reinforce the keys.
Kuo adds that the new keyboard will still cost more than an average laptop keyboard, but that it will likely be cheaper to produce than Apple’s failed butterfly design, which was expensive due to low yields. Kuo also adds that Apple will be switching suppliers for the new keyboard, which will be produced by specialist laptop keyboard maker Sunrex, rather than Wistron, its current supplier for butterfly keyboards. The new version is expected to go into mass production in 2020 and will likely be the design seen in all of Apple’s future MacBooks in the foreseeable future.
Although Kuo predicted that the new keyboards would make it into the 2019 MacBook Air this year, which was previously expected to be little more than a spec bump, his research note was conspicuously silent on rumours of the 16-inch MacBook Pro that he predicted earlier this year — a model that, if truly in the pipeline, would almost certainly feature the new keyboard design as well. There have been several other mysterious MacBooks appearing in recent regulatory filings as well that haven’t been mentioned by Kuo in the context of his new keyboard analysis.