Apple Finally Did the Right Thing (Sort of)

This is my broken “a” key.
Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

About a week ago, the “a” key on my MacBook Pro broke. Once flat and useful, the poor little guy now looks like a mini ski slope and barely works. Several of my friends have similar keyboard problems on their overpriced laptops. So it felt like a relief earlier today when Apple announced an expansion of Keyboard Service Program. Now, the company will repair pretty much any MacBook Pro with the problematic “butterfly mechanism” for free. Apple even announced a design upgrade that will hopefully ensure new keyboards don’t break. Good job, Apple.

This feels refreshing because it’s taken Apple so long to deal with the many problems caused by its crappy butterfly key design. Apple first introduced this technology with the release of a new 13-inch MacBook in late 2015. A second version of the butterfly key design came in early 2016 when Apple announced the redesigned MacBook Pro. By then, people had already been complaining about the original butterfly key design and its tendency to break, but the redesigned butterfly sparked a firestorm of rage.

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Nearly a year after Casey Johnston explained her own frustrations with the new MacBook Pro keyboard in a post on the Outline, Apple finally admitted the design was flawed in June 2018 and announced a repair program for a limited number of its laptops. A few months later, Apple introduced a new MacBook Air and another new MacBook Pro with a third-generation butterfly key design with a silicone membrane to prevent more broken keys. The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern later reported that the third-generation butterfly keys were also prone to failure. Apple did not expand the repair program to cover the new models.

Repair programs, in general, sort of suck. They involve a paying customer dealing with a broken product and then dealing with the annoyance of spending time to get it fixed. Replacing a MacBook keyboard is also notoriously annoying, since you can’t really replace a single broken key and must replace the entire upper half of the laptop. That meant that unlucky users with broken keyboards would have to send their laptops away for several days in order to take advantage of the repair program. Apple recently changed its policy so that more keyboard replacements could happen in its stores and that most customers would only have to wait 24 hours to get their keyboards fixed. But still, the free repair program only applied to certain MacBook models.

With today’s announcement, Apple has now, finally, done the right thing. All MacBook models with butterfly keyboards—all three generations of the design—qualify for free repairs. The company also announced new MacBook Pro models with a fourth-generation butterfly design that uses a new material for the keyboard mechanism, although it stopped short of saying what that new material is. There are a couple of caveats. The repair program only covers MacBook models for four years after the original purchase. That means some people who bought a 13-inch MacBook in April 2015, when the new model came out, do not qualify for a free repair. Apple also says that only MacBook models with third-generation keys will get the new fourth-generation keyboard from a free repair.

It turns out Apple is reckoning with other defects, too. Around the same time that it announced the expanded keyboard repair program, Apple said that it would also offer free repairs for MacBook displays that suffered from a so-called “stage light” effect as they aged. This issue doesn’t seem to be nearly as widespread as the keyboard fiasco, though. I’ve reached out for more information on the fourth-generation butterfly key design as well as details of the expanded repair program. I’ll update this post if I hear back.

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It’s all a little bit dizzying, isn’t it? As a tech reporter who covers Apple a fair amount, I’ve followed the blow-by-blow of this quality assurance meltdown for four years now. And until very recently, it felt ridiculous that so many people were suffering from what appeared to be a fatal flaw in one of the most important components of a laptop: the keyboard. It seems like any computer company would stress test a new key design, maybe in the way that Ikea stress tests its chairs: by making a robot pound on them a few thousand times. We’re not talking about any computer company here, either. We’re talking about Apple, the company that’s famous for its obsession with perfection!

Maybe that obsession is what kept Apple from dealing with this keyboard properly sooner. After all, it’s been going on for years, and Apple has only offered incremental temporary fixes for a select number of its customers, people who paid thousands of dollars for devices that proved to be defective. The whole debacle reminds me of the recent controversy over Apple secretly throttling iPhones in order to extend battery life. It took Apple a few years to address that issue and ultimately to offer discounted battery replacements to certain iPhone customers. It’s taken Apple years to admit that it screwed up the first three generations of the butterfly key design. And now, we’ll just have to wait and see if the fourth generation fails, too.

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Nevertheless, it’s a good thing that more people can get their keyboards fixed. The current wait for a keyboard repair at my local Apple Store is about a week, but I’m sure another week with a broken “a” key will just fly by. I’ve actually come to expect some mild disappointment with every Apple product I buy. An iPhone XS screen that scratches easily, a mouse that only works sometimes, a keyboard that breaks—these are the new Apple products. They’re honestly great most of the time. But buying Apple products these days is not just about marveling in perfection but rather waiting for the one imperfection that will ruin your life.

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About the author

Adam Clark Estes

Senior editor at Gizmodo.

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