The Future of Apple Innovation Is Backwards

Photo: iFixit

The big iFixit teardown is done, and the results are in. The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is a heck of a lot like the old 15-inch MacBook Pro, save for a few meaningful throwback features. Yes, I mean throwback as in retro—as in Apple actually took retired features from old MacBooks and reintroduced them as new features. It would seem that the future of innovation at the Cupertino-based computer company is what I’ll call rewind design.

I’m not complaining. The 16-inch MacBook Pro looks like a hell of a laptop, as it should for a starting price of $2,400. The new machine comes with a bigger display, a bigger battery, better speakers, and a brand new AMD graphics card. Then there are those retro features. There’s a physical escape button just like there was on MacBook Pros before the rise of the Touch Bar. The arrow keys are once again arranged in an inverted “T” formation, as they had been on keyboards for decades. The new “Magic Keyboard” uses a scissor switch that’s almost identical to the Bluetooth-enabled Magic Keyboard that Apple released nearly five years ago.

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The keyboard thing is a big deal. Apple has been dealing with public outrage sparked by its newer butterfly mechanism in MacBook keyboards. This low-travel design contributed to the impossible thinness of the 12-inch MacBook released in 2015, before finding its way into all MacBook models in 2016. Even a small bit of dust or debris could disable a key, and fixing it required replacing the entire upper half of the laptop. Apple admitted to the flawed design and launched a limited repair program in June 2018, before it ultimately offered free keyboard repairs for all MacBooks with the new mechanism. The company was still trying to fix the scissor design as recently as May of this year when it launched an updated 15-inch MacBook Pro. Now, the cursed butterfly-powered MacBook keyboard is all but dead. The new keyboard design is expected to show up on smaller MacBooks in early 2020.

But the new design isn’t all that new. As iFixit points out in its teardown, the 16-inch MacBook’s keyboard is virtually identical to the well-loved Magic Keyboard from 2o15. In other words, Apple replaced a flawed design from 2015—one that it had tried and failed to perfect many times—with a design from 2015 that wasn’t so flawed. It’s almost as if Apple made the wrong decision almost five years ago, and in order to deal with that, it’s just going back in time and making the right decision. The same is true for the new physical escape button, which Apple had axed on most MacBook Pro models in 2016, and for the new inverted “T” arrow key layout, which Apple had done away with back in 2015.

Photo: iFixit

This is a curious way to design computers. It also seems like Apple’s MacBook team was really screwing up back in 2015. That was a time when the company’s design team decided to fix a few things that weren’t broken and break a few more things in the process. Now, to fix those problems, Apple is just replacing the broken new things with near-identical versions of the old things, effectively putting its design process in reverse. If you liked the crispiness and ease of the newer scissor mechanism on the big MacBook Pro, too bad. Apple failed at perfecting its promising design so it just switched back to the old one.

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Once again, I’m not complaining. As one of the many thousands of people with broken MacBook keyboards, I welcome the return of the more robust design of the Magic Keyboard. I have one of the old Magic Keyboards on my desk, and I love it! I especially love how the keys don’t break constantly. And while we’re on the topic, I also miss having an escape key. My 15-inch MacBook Pro has a Touch Bar, which I hate—although I would hate it slightly less if it had a physical escape key. I’m honestly impartial on the inverted “T” arrow key thing, but I know some people are passionate about it.

What does bug me about Apple’s new take on innovation is that it confirms the belief that the company seldom has new ideas. I wrote a long rant about this last year when it was apparent that Apple focuses less on hardware innovation and more on money-making services. That prediction, unfortunately, turned out to be true. In recent months, we’ve seen the release of a new iPhone, which amounted to the old iPhone plus an extra camera, as well as the new Apple TV+ streaming service, which is a bit bland. They’re not bad products. But they’re certainly not groundbreaking.

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The same appears to be true for the 16-inch MacBook Pro. I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve had time to test the new laptop, and given my penchant for an operational keyboard and an escape key, I bet I’ll like it. I just can’t stop wondering if I’ll ever see another new Apple product that warps my understanding of technology the way that the iPod or the iPhone did so many years ago. It’s possible that Apple will do it with some sort of augmented reality headset in the next couple of years. Maybe its designers have been so busy working on that futuristic product that they couldn’t focus on perfecting keyboard design. Surely they’ve been busy doing better things.

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About the author

Adam Clark Estes

Senior editor at Gizmodo.

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