Three generations into the “butterfly” keyboard Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) first introduced for the MacBook in 2015, and the company is once again facing a PR disaster, plus the specter of a class action lawsuit.
A report in The Wall Street Journal about the keyboard failing in a new MacBook Air has once again brought the issue into the open and resulted in Apple releasing a rare apology about the latest MacBook keyboard. But saying sorry doesn’t fix a problem that a prominent journalist says is now “doing lasting harm to the reputation of the MacBook brand.”
Apple may be focused on services these days, but Mac sales still brought in $7.4 billion in revenue last quarter — more than the iPad or wearables. Repair programs and lawsuits get expensive and if Mac sales slow because of this, the ripple effect is going to be felt in Apple stock as well.
New MacBook Air Suffers Butterfly Keyboard Issues
The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern wrote a scathing column yesterday about a defective keyboard in her new MacBook Air.
One of the features of the model, which was released late last year, is the third generation butterfly MacBook keyboard. Apple describes it like this:
“The latest-generation MacBook Air keyboard features our butterfly mechanism — providing four times more key stability than a traditional scissor mechanism, along with greater comfort and responsiveness.”
Ironically, the likelihood that Apple would include the new butterfly MacBook keyboard in a re-designed MacBook Air was a big reason why many people feared Apple upgrading its most popular — and outdated — laptop. I still have a three-year-old MacBook Air that I intend to keep using (despite the ancient processor and low-resolution display) because I dislike that new keyboard so much …
For many owners of Apple laptops, the reality has proven the concern to be justified. In Ms. Stern’s case, the “E” and “R” keys frequently fail to register at all, while the “T” key repeats. A trip to the Apple Store resulted in staff cleaning the keyboard, but the problem persisted, meaning the entire keyboard will have to be replaced under warranty (which takes days to a week). In response to the column, Apple released an apology, something it rarely does.
“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry.”
Three Generations of Trouble
All of this started with Apple’s fascination with making its products thinner. The existing MacBook keyboard used in all of its laptops was tried and true. But in 2015 the company released the 12-inch MacBook, its thinnest laptop ever. And with the MacBook it introduced the new butterfly keyboard mechanism that shaved about 1mm off the thickness.
There were immediate complaints about the poor user experience of the new keyboard, but Apple persisted. In 2016, a second generation butterfly keyboard was added to the MacBook Pro. Amid complaints, several lawsuits, reports the new keyboards were failing at double the rate of older models, and an extended repair program, Apple quietly introduced a third generation butterfly keyboard in the 2018 MacBook Pro and the new MacBook Air.
Clearly, the third revision has still not fixed a design flaw that seems inherent with the butterfly mechanism. A national class action lawsuit against Apple is now in the works. Yesterday, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber wrote”
“I consider these keyboards the worst products in Apple history. MacBooks should have the best keyboards in the industry; instead they’re the worst. They’re doing lasting harm to the reputation of the MacBook brand.”
Apple has been stubbornly sticking with the butterfly MacBook keyboard, but the company’s refusal to admit there is a design flaw is causing damage. Warranty repairs are expensive and inconvenient for customers, and as it stands Apple is on the hook to keep fixing affected MacBook keyboard problems for free for four years after purchase. At the same time, competitors like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are targeting Apple’s core customers with thin, premium Windows laptops like the Surface Laptop. There’s a real risk of MacBook owners and potential buyers jumping ship.
Apple may be betting its future on services like the new Apple TV+ streaming video, but hardware is still the biggest revenue generator for the company by far. That means fixing design defects if they’re found in its products, whether that’s bendy iPhones or laptop keyboards that seem designed to fail. Coming into five years of ongoing complaints about the butterfly MacBook keyboard design, the company needs to make a real change before it loses loyal customers, scares off new ones and Mac revenues begin to take a hit that’s felt at the Apple stock price level.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.