MacBook butterfly keyboard problems spawn recall petition [Update]

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MacBook butterfly keyboard
A new petition calls for Apple to recall the MacBook butterfly keyboard, which can fail when a speck of dust gets in the wrong place.
Photo: Apple

The butterfly keyboard in recent MacBooks draws frequent complaints. And these have now escalated to the point where an online petition is requesting that Apple recall every MacBook Pro released since 2016.

These laptops are super-slim, and so are their keyboards. Reducing the thickness left room for very little key travel, resulting in accusations that even a small speck of dust underneath one of the keys can cause it to stop functioning.

The “butterfly” name comes from the shape of each key’s internal mechanism. In the 2015 MacBook, Apple replaced the old scissor design with one reminiscent of a butterfly.

It’s supposed to more evenly distribute the pressure from tapping on the keys. As mentioned, it’s also 40 percent thinner.

Unfortunately, something about the design apparently makes keys prone to getting stuck.

MacBook butterfly keyboard
The MacBook butterfly keyboard is thinner, but less reliable.
Photo: Apple

The petition on Change.org asks for a recall of all the MacBook Pros released since 2016. It comes from Matthew Taylor, an author who has been using Apple computers since 1981. He has used exclusively Macs to publish more than 50 books.

His troubles started when he got his first laptop with a butterfly keyboard.

“I purchased this MacBook Pro in [December] 2016, and less than a year later the L key became intermittent and unreliable,” he told Cult of Mac. “I took it into an Apple store and the genius bar replaced the L key in late 2017. That replacement L key failed within a month, and *then* the right-side Shift key became similarly intermittent and unreliable in early 2018.”

Epidemic of MacBook butterfly keyboard problems

Taylor is far from alone — more than 1100 people have signed his petition in just over one day. And even a cursory Google search turns up dozens of people complaining about MacBook keyboards. Zach Perret said on Twitter, “Lots of problems with new MacBook keys stuck down. Based on people near me, the apparent solution is to bang persistently on the keyboard.”

Matti Haapoja used the same platform to say, “Just realized how crappy Apples new butterfly keyboard is. I want the old one back.”

Marco Arment wrote: “Lots of keys now getting sticky and unreliable on my two-month-old MacBook Pro. Mac laptops I’ve owned: ~10 Keyboard problems before now: 0”

And that’s just a small sample of the vast number of MacBook Pro butterfly keyboard complaints to be found online. They have been piling up for years. The problem is so general that a recent study found that Apple’s butterfly keyboard needs to be serviced twice as much as the keyboards of older devices.

Apple blogger John Gruber even fretted that the butterfly keyboard problem indicated a systemic failure of Cupertino’s vision.

“I find these keyboards — specifically, the tales of woe about keys getting stuck or ceasing to work properly — a deeply worrisome sign about Apple’s priorities today,” he wrote at Daring Fireball.

Apple’s fix for butterfly keyboard problem

Apple suggested a solution for the problem of sticking keys on the MacBook (2015 and later) or MacBook Pro (2016 and later). Apple’s fix? MacBook owners should attempt to dislodge the offending speck of dirt or dust with compressed air.

There’s a page on the company’s support site describing the recommended procedure. This apparently does not fix the problem completely, or complaints about the Apple keyboard wouldn’t continue.

Apple even filed a patent in 2016 outlining novel methods for making keyboards impervious to liquids, food and dirt. A heating element could liquefy sugar resulting from a spilled soda, for instance. “Brushes, wipers or flaps” could keep debris at bay. And if something made it inside the keyboard, an internal mechanism could crush it.

“If contaminants such as chip crumbs reach internal areas of key assemblies, the contaminants may be broken down by the crushing components during motion of the key assemblies,” Apple’s engineers wrote. “This may prevent the contaminants from blocking key motion.”

Clearly, Cupertino is at least thinking about its keyboard problem.

Apple butterfly keyboard petition

Taylor wants action, though. His MacBook Pro petition calls for Apple to “replace the keyboards on all of them with new, redesigned keyboards that just work.”

As he told us, a redesign is necessary because “replacing the keyboard with one of essentially the same design is not viable, because the design is fatally flawed.”

What the petition is requesting would be a huge undertaking. Apple already redesigned the butterfly keyboard once. The company installs that new version in new MacBooks and ones brought in with stuck keys. Nevertheless, people still complain about the same problem.

It would be an even more herculean, and expensive, project because the keyboard isn’t a stand-alone part of the laptop. We asked Kyle Wiens from iFixit about the difficulties, and he pointed out that replacing the keyboard requires exchanging a large section of the computer, including the touchpad, the speakers and even the battery.

Nevertheless, Taylor thinks a MacBook Pro keyboard recall is the right thing to do.

“People should sign this petition to hold Apple accountable to the ideals of its ‘Designed by Apple in California’ signature,” he said. “Apple must rectify this design failure.”

This post was originally published at 5:40 p.m. on May 2. It has been updated with additional info on the troublesome butterfly keyboard and the petition for an Apple keyboard recall.