Roben Kleene

The Keyboard Saga

The new 16” MacBook Pro is available to buy now, and it sounds like a hit, a return to form for the MacBook line. Physical Esc key, inverted-T arrow keys, and of course, a return to a scissor-switch keyboard. There are a lot of great reviews around, and Phil Schiller appeared on Jonathan Morrison’s YouTube channel. Don’t miss this part where Schiller shares some details about what’s been happening behind the scenes around Apple’s pro product lines.

The overarching marketing message is about listening to pro customers. Schiller also shared some details with Roger Cheng, at CNET, about how customer feedback shaped the design of the new keyboard:

A few years back, we decided that while we were advancing the butterfly keyboard, we would also – specifically for our pro customer – go back and really talk to many pro customers about what they most want in a keyboard and did a bunch of research. That’s been a really impressive project, the way the engineering team has gotten into the physiology of typing and the psychology of typing – what people love. […]

As we started to investigate specifically what pro users most wanted, a lot of times they would say, “I want something like this Magic Keyboard, I love that keyboard.” And so the team has been working on this idea of taking that core technology and adapting it to the notebook, which is a different implementation than the desktop keyboard, and that’s what we’ve come up with [for] this new keyboard. We’re doing both in advancing the butterfly keyboard, and we’re creating this new Magic Keyboard for our Pro notebooks.

This all sounds great, but the question remains about what had changed at Apple, that caused them to ship the butterfly keyboard after they’d been shipping laptops that everyone loved for years before that1.

If I had to wager a guess, I’d say what changed is caution. The iPad, and above all the iPhone, have an aura of caution around them. While the iPhone does take an occasional risk, like removing the headphone jack, for the most part it feels like they aren’t released until they are perfect. Removing the home button from the iPhone X is a great recent example2. I’ve yet to see anyone point out what a triumph that was. The iPhone’s core mechanical button was replaced by gestures, and people barely noticed. Gestures! The iPhone X’s home gestures are the satisfying crack of the ball meeting the sweet spot when you’ve hit a home run. It’s unequivocal proof that Apple’s still got it, and the fact that nobody’s even talking about it is illustrative of how much of a grand slam it was.

Other times caution means holding back, the iPad’s clumsy multi-tasking gestures haven’t been allowed touch the iPad’s core user experience of using one app at a time3. Because they just aren’t ready yet, putting them front-and-center in the iPad user experience would be a butterfly-keyboard-like catastrophe.

It feels to me like whatever mechanism Apple uses to refine great ideas, and determine when to hold the lousy ones back, was absent from the Mac products that shipped from 2015-2018. Since then it’s been put back in place, the guard rails are back up.

  1. Apple’s laptops were once so good that Linus Torvalds was using a MacBook Air (running Linux of course). ↩︎

  2. Another great example of Apple making sure something is perfect before shipping it is Face ID. It’s really hard to take an existing excellent feature, and replace it with another one that solves the same problem in a completely different way, without bungling the switch. ↩︎

  3. You can use the iPad’s multi-tasking if you know about them, but you can also just use an iPad one app at a time, without ever even knowing they are there. ↩︎