Apple’s Third-Generation MacBook Keyboards Are Still Failing
Apple has once again acknowledged that its MacBooks are equipped with a failed keyboard design. The problem — which the company has now been failing to solve since 2015 — is arguably deliberate at this point, reflecting either a refusal to grapple with the reality of the problem or a pointed attempt to shake customers down for more money.
The Wall Street Journal report on the issue is clever; it offers readers the option to read the article with the letters “E” and “R” removed. Joanna Stern, the author of the piece, has been dealing with the failure of both keycaps on her four-month-old MacBook Air. You’ve also got the option to read the story with double-e’s and double-t’s, just in case you want to simulate the types of failure other users and journalists have reported.
“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry,” an Apple spokesman said in a statement. “The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”
Why Should We Believe Apple Is Sorry?
I don’t believe Apple is sorry about this and I don’t think you should either. Consider the facts of the situation and Apple’s overall conduct over the past few years.
When the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launched in September 2014, Apple publicly stated that the devices were no more likely to bend than the iPhone 5s had been. This was a lie. Internal testing had already shown that the iPhone 6 was 3.3x more likely to bend than the iPhone 5s, while the iPhone 6 Plus was 7.2x more likely to bend. This increased bendability caused a phenomenon known as ‘touch disease,’ which led to the premature death of many devices, particularly the iPhone 6 Plus. This information only came to light because Judge Lucy Koh released it to the public as part of a lawsuit against the company. Apple’s eventual response, after months, was to offer a $150 repair option. Also, they blamed the problem on end users dropping their phones.
Beginning in 2015, Apple began shipping laptops with keyboards that failed if even a single grain of dust became trapped under a key. Because Apple designed the entire keyboard as a single integrated piece, there was no way to replace just the broken keycap. Apple charged $700 for a new MacBook Pro keyboard and $350 for a MacBook keyboard replacement until years of user outcry forced the company to launch a replacement program.
When Apple launched its third-generation butterfly keyboard — the one that still doesn’t fix this issue — it refused to publicly state that the new keyboard design would be any less susceptible to dust entrapment than the old had been. The company went so far as to tell Cnet that the third-gen keyboard didn’t contain any fixes for the dust issue, even though third-party testing found that it absolutely did. Admitting it had a problem might have opened Apple to legal liability.
Beginning in 2016, Apple began using internal laptop display cables that are too short, causing them to eventually fail. According to an iFixit analysis, the company attempted to fix this issue, dubbed Flexgate, in the 2018 MacBook Pro without actually admitting it existed in the first place. But because the display cable is integrated into the screen, there’s no way to swap just the cable — you have to pay $600 to replace the entire screen rather than $6.
In late 2017, Apple was caught deliberately slowing down its own smartphones to preserve battery life and prevent sudden shutdowns. While that decision was defensible as a technical solution, the company’s complete failure to communicate its decision to end users was widely seen as a consumer-hostile move intended to drive people to replace their entire phone rather than swapping the battery. Apple eventually launched a $29 battery replacement program to deal with the blowback — then partly blamed people who took advantage of it for its poor product sales in Q4 2018.
Apple’s 2018 MacBook Pro refresh shipped with at least three significant flaws, not counting the still-broken third-generation keyboard. These systems have serious USB audio problems believed to be related to the custom T2 security processor Apple outfitted them with. This is the second significant audio bug to hit the laptop family, following an earlier issue that caused physical damage to the system’s speakers. The highest-end MBP configuration Apple launched in 2018 also shipped with a severe throttling problem, later resolved via UEFI update.
As all of this has played out, Apple has been focused on ramping up its services revenue. The price of AppleCare has shot up. So has the cost of repairs if you don’t have it.
I don’t think Apple is attempting to build products that are secretly more likely to fail, so much as it’s deliberately building hardware that’s expensive to repair. Driving up the cost of out-of-warranty repairs is an excellent way to push people towards AppleCare. In 2017, analysts estimated that AppleCare sales accounted for 17 percent of Apple’s $31.3B in Services revenue. In 2018, Services revenue hit $37.1B.
If Apple was “sorry,” it would stop designing products with $600 – $700 in out-of-warranty repair costs. If it cared about safeguarding the user experience, it would go back to doing so by designing top-notch hardware as opposed to lying to the public (either directly or via omission) about the consequences of its own design changes.
If Apple wants the technical press to believe its apologies, it can stop designing hardware with the kind of flaws that shouldn’t pass muster in a $200 Chromebook and start building machines that deserve to be counted among the best in the business. Until it does, its apologies are worthless.