Apple is finally paying the price for the “butterfly keyboard”. On July 18, Apple agreed to pay $50 million to settle a class action lawsuit over the quality of its butterfly keyboards. When the settlement goes into effect, Apple will not only provide free repairs for faulty butterfly keyboards but will also pay U.S. customers an additional $50-$395 in cash compensation, depending on the MacBook model.
The butterfly keyboard was born in 2015 and was originally a new design adopted by Apple to cut the thickness of notebooks. Compared to the traditional scissor-style keyboard, the butterfly keyboard has shorter, thinner and more stable keys. Apple has since expanded the butterfly keyboard to the entire MacBook product line.
The new MacBook, launched in 2015, features a butterfly keyboard for the first time｜Apple
But it quickly led to disastrous consequences. Because the key body is thinner, the butterfly keyboard is easy because into the dust and lead to the feel of “sticky”, or even the whole stuck. Apple tried several times to improve, and finally decided to give up.
In 2019, Apple officially kicked the butterfly keyboard out of the product line, announcing the complete failure of this “innovation”. That is, in 2018, the U.S. users filed a class action lawsuit against the butterfly keyboard, and four years later, the lawsuit has finally been settled.
The failure of the butterfly keyboard is not just a matter of industrial design; the MacBook, which came out in 2015 with the butterfly keyboard, had high expectations from Apple. Many people thought it was another revolution in laptops since the MacBook Air was introduced in 2008.
Now, another seven years later, the laptop is back to the way it was in 2008.
“Reinventing” the keyboard
In 2015, the butterfly keyboard was born with a “golden spoon” in its mouth.
At that spring event, Cook celebrated the opening of the Apple Store in Westlake and introduced a range of software services, but the real star of the event was the MacBook. Cook said.
And a key step in reinventing the notebook is reinventing the keyboard. The new MacBook is designed to be thinner and lighter, with a thinner screen and a 34 percent thinner keyboard than its predecessor, the “butterfly keyboard.
Compared to the traditional scissor keyboard, the butterfly keyboard uses a more complex, but more stable trigger structure. The upper mechanical structure is butterfly-shaped, symmetrically cocked along the center, so it is more stable. For ultimate precision, each trigger structure of the butterfly keyboard is individually assembled, and a separate LED bead is placed inside to provide backlighting, and the trigger shrapnel at the bottom is also newly designed and made of stainless steel.
Compared to the traditional scissor structure, the butterfly keyboard is more complex and expensive｜Apple
This design is a luxury for a keyboard. Tianfeng International analyst Ming-Chi Kuo later pointed out in a report that the butterfly keyboard has a high cost and low yield, and the overall cost is 250% – 350% higher compared to a typical notebook keyboard.
But it all seems to be worth it, through the subtle design, the butterfly keyboard can provide enough “trigger feeling” in a very short key range, to ensure that users can accurately input. In the product video, Jony Ive, who is responsible for the design, does not hide his pride in the “butterfly keyboard”: it is thinner, more stable, faster and more accurate.
There are indeed many users who like the feel of the Butterfly Keyboard. Its extremely short key range can improve the efficiency of input, while enough stability can give users enough confidence, the feel is also very crisp and clean. Although there are many people think that it is too short, easy to use to cause finger fatigue, but until the early release, the butterfly keyboard has not caused too much controversy.
In 2016, Apple began rolling out the butterfly keyboard to more new MacBooks, including the new MacBook Pro, which was released in the fall of that year and was almost a reimagining of the MacBook design from a year earlier: lighter and thinner, with a new keyboard, touchpad, and battery design.
The MacBook Pro launched in 2016｜Unsplash
It was around then that the problems with the butterfly keyboard began to reveal themselves and grew into a disaster.
Looking back at the problems with the butterfly keyboard, it’s really not that hard to understand. Simply put, it was so thin that the gaps in the key trigger structure were so small that dust and debris from everyday life could fall in and “jam” a key.
The early manifestation of “jamming” is that the keys are no longer solid, and the feel of striking them is no longer crisp and strong. After that, it becomes more and more “sticky” until finally, it may cause the key to malfunction and mis-touch.
Apple’s early solution was to let users buy a can of compressed air and “dust” the keyboard themselves. Many users found in practice, either spraying or vacuuming, can really improve the butterfly keyboard into the ash problem.
But in any case, for most people, the keyboard should not be a need to serve the “ancestors”.
The road to improvement
Apple actually realized the problem of the butterfly keyboard very early.
A year after the launch of the MacBook with the butterfly keyboard, in 2016, Apple improved the butterfly keyboard on the new MacBook Pro, lengthening the key travel compared to the original version.
In theory, the “longer key travel” allows for more space in the key structure and makes it less susceptible to dust. But this increase is still too small, still can not solve the fundamental problem. Some users even believe that the second generation of butterfly keyboard key range longer, it will be easier to bring the gray into the key gap.
For the problem of dust ingress, the early solution given by Apple was to spray with dust cans｜Apple
Just as Apple was trying everything to try to improve the butterfly keyboard, the problem began to fester dramatically as the number of new MacBook users increased and time stretched out.
In 2018, Apple Insider found that the 2016 MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboard had an extremely high failure rate, twice that of the older scissor-style keyboard. The Wall Street Journal also reported on the massive failure of the butterfly keyboard, after which Apple stepped in, publicly apologized to users, and launched a corresponding repair and replacement program.
At this point, Apple hadn’t given up on the butterfly keyboard, and in the summer of 2018, it introduced a new MacBook Pro with a third-generation butterfly keyboard. This time, Apple added a silicone film to each key structure in an attempt to isolate dust from the key body. In the publicity, Apple said the new keyboard’s improvements were mainly about reducing noise, but the real nuisance, the much-needed solution, has been getting into the dust.
The third-generation butterfly keyboard added “silicone film”｜ifixit
The third generation of the butterfly keyboard attempts to improve once again failed. Adding “dustproof film” inside the key body does not completely separate the keycap from the key body, which may improve the problem and slow down the time of failure. But in the long run, it’s still “treating the symptoms but not the root cause”, and there’s always a way for dust to run in.
In 2019, Apple made one last “struggling update” to the butterfly keyboard. On the new MacBook Pro released in May, Apple said it used a “new material” to make the keyboard, which can greatly reduce the failure rate of the butterfly keyboard.
But when the wolf story is told for the fourth time, not many people care anymore. The last generation of butterfly keyboard did not even trigger much discussion, not many people care whether it really solved the problem of ash. By then a class action lawsuit had been launched against the butterfly keyboard, and there was news from the supply chain that Apple would switch back to the scissor-style keyboard. The boots have yet to hit the ground, but the butterfly keyboard is in great demand.
Six months later, in the fall of 2019, Apple did use the scissor-style keyboard back on the new MacBook Pro 16-inch and began ditching the butterfly keyboard.
An unreachable future
At the time of its release, the butterfly keyboard had sparked endless imaginations of tech enthusiasts. It was a combination of a physical keyboard and a virtual keyboard, with extremely short key strokes that were like hitting on a full flat surface.
At the time, Apple was heavily researching pressure-sensitive and touch-sensitive technologies, exploring the use of the TapTic Engine to simulate physical vibration feedback. The Force Touch touchpad on the MacBook, the Home button on the iPhone 7, and 3D Touch were all Apple’s achievements back then.
Many people believe that Apple’s exploration of “pressure-sensitive” and “touch-sensitive” is ultimately intended to turn the notebook keyboard into a screen like the iPad, where the user’s finger can tap on it, the screen can sense pressure, accurate input, and provide a mechanical keyboard-like vibration feedback.
There are even people who believe that the ultimate form of the keyboard, will not stop at the virtual keyboard on the screen, but will further evolve into an AR keyboard – projected by AR glasses on the desktop, and then through the camera to identify finger movements to achieve input.
These two imaginations are very suitable for the background of the development of technology. But the ideal and the reality of the gulf, far wider than imagined. Not to mention the full virtual keyboard, even the butterfly keyboard, but also quickly exit the stage of history, spent a life of dislike, at the age of 5.
It’s not just the butterfly keyboard that was discarded. 2015 – 2016 Apple had a series of designs that were radically explored and later abandoned, from the Touch Bar, to 3D Touch, to the multi-layer terraced lithium battery ……
The new MacBook, released in 2015, still looks somewhat “futuristic” today｜Unsplash
Since its early days, Apple has been a company that has emphasized “form. Most of the classic Apple products throughout history, whether they failed or succeeded, were the result of form leading technology and moving forward in a radical way.
That’s why since the 1990s, Apple’s industrial design team has had a very high profile, charged with the task of “navigating” the entire company.
But apparently, that’s all in the past. Since Jony Ive announced his departure from Apple in 2019, radical, cost-neutral designs have been corrected time and time again, seemingly suggesting that industrial design no longer points to a future for Apple. Just last month, Apple terminated its consulting relationship with Ive for good, finally splitting up in one fell swoop.
The latest MacBook Pro and Air are back to what they were a decade ago, with the MacBook Pro looking more like the PowerBook G5 released in 2003 and the MacBook Air being a thinner version of the Pro.
In the end, the butterfly keyboard left Apple with a $50 million “penalty”. But it was still a radical and meaningful attempt by Apple to move forward with the “future form” of laptops, and a symbol of a time in history when people took it for granted that technology would always be changing.
After the settlement was reached, Apple said, “Paying compensation is not an admission that this [the butterfly keyboard] was a mistake.”