In June, after months of increasing customer complaints and vocal unhappiness, Apple kicked off a program to replace the keyboards of customers who had stuck or non-responsive keys. There was a sharp increase in the number and frequency of these complaints after Apple switched to a new keyboard design in 2015, particularly as the new design rolled out across Apple’s entire product lines. Now, a new iFixit teardown into the keyboards explores what went wrong.
Among them — and as one example — apparently the Apple-designed butterfly-switch spacebar is so delicate, it breaks every single time it’s removed from the keyboard, even by a professional. The design of the keyboard makes it impossible to switch key caps, and the design of the laptops makes it impossible to just switch keyboards. To quote iFixit:
The keyboard itself can’t simply be swapped out. You can’t even swap out the upper case containing the keyboard on its own. You also have to replace the glued-in battery, trackpad, and speakers at the same time. For Apple’s service team, the entire upper half of the laptop is a single component. That’s why Apple has been charging through the nose and taking forever on these repairs. And that’s why it’s such a big deal—for customers and for shareholders—that Apple is extending the warranty. It’s a damned expensive way to dust a laptop…
We put a keycap under a microscope and injected a grain of sand so you can see how this happens. The grain is in the bottom right corner, and it’s completely blocking the key press action. It’s very challenging to remove it with compressed air.
According to iFixit, the particle of sand wedges itself underneath the butterfly cap, preventing it from depressing. Because there’s virtually no way to remove the space bar (and none without breaking it), it’s virtually impossible to fix. And because it’s virtually impossible to fix, we have a remarkable situation in which the richest company on Earth has built a laptop in which one of the most common substances on Earth, which is itself a synonym for dirt, can break a laptop and require the replacement of a very expensive set of components.
Thinness Is Neither a Moral Good Nor a Product Necessity
What’s striking about this problem is that it isn’t the first or even second time Apple has been caught out in recent years regarding the thinness of its product designs. By my count, it’s at least the third. First, the company decided to remove strengthening and stabilizing reinforcement from the iPhone 6, leading to ‘touch disease‘ — and court documents released earlier this year confirm that Apple knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, 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 than the iPhone 5s. It knew before it released the devices. It knew, and released them anyway, because thinness is the only thing that matters.
Then, there’s last year’s battery issues. Apple uses smaller batteries than its competitors, and it aggressively pushes the envelope on CPU clock and efficiency. So when Apple batteries began buckling under discharge strain, the company decided to artificially choke CPU performance rather than own up to the problem. And now, in the pursuit of 40 percent thinner keys, Apple designed a laptop so stupidly thin, not only can the keyboard not be repaired by Apple, but it has to replace huge sections of the entire laptop to fix a keyboard.
Apple, at this point, is sacrificing features that users do care about, like basic longevity, in pursuit of thinness. But “thinness,” while useful and undeniably a motivating trend from users overall, is not a moral good. It is not something that is simply more valuable than other traits in a vacuum. It doesn’t trump the value of a keyboard that doesn’t break, a phone that doesn’t bend, or a battery that doesn’t require killing a phone’s performance to maintain.
Part of being a trendsetter is knowing when a trend has run its course. If Apple hasn’t figured out by now that simply making products thinner is not making its products better, it needs to do so.
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