Three years ago, Apple introduced the 12-inch MacBook, an incredibly slim laptop that gave the previous lightweight champion, the MacBook Air, a run for its money. To enable such a slender frame, the company developed a new kind of keyboard using a “butterfly-switch” technique. Where a traditional keyboard presses downward thanks to a scissor-like mechanism underneath the keys, Apple’s design looks more like a butterfly in shape. The change was supposed to offer a similar feel while shaving off a fraction of the space that keys typically need to engage. After a mostly uneventful roll out in the MacBook, Apple introduced the butterfly-switch keyboard into other laptop designs as well, including the 2016 MacBook Pro. Since then, however, problems have cropped up: The keys have a tendency to stick or become unresponsive; other times, key presses either don’t register or repeat characters unexpectedly. After several class-action lawsuits and a suite of online complaints, Apple has finally admitted there’s an issue, and it has introduced a service program for replacing those experiencing faulty keyboards.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen an issue like this. Shortly after Apple released the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in 2014, some phone owners—particularly those who stored their phone in their pocket—noticed something strange about their new purchases: They were bending. The issue, which was widely documented on YouTube, came to be known as “Bendgate” or “Bendghazi.” Aluminum is a light, durable, and malleable metal, and with the iPhone’s ever-shrinking thickness, it wasn’t a stretch that the device’s casing might yield under pressure. However, unlike issues such as scratching, bending wasn’t merely cosmetic. Once a phone’s casing bent, it was more susceptible to “touch disease,” an issue where the device’s touch screen becomes intermittently unresponsive. This became widespread enough that iPhone owners also filed a class-action lawsuit against Apple. But there was an additional twist: Recently revealed internal documents in the case showed that Apple knew these phones weren’t as sturdy as their predecessors.
Issues like these have convinced some Apple diehards that the company has an ulterior motive—that through planned obsolescence, it aims to force people to buy and rebuy into Apple’s ecosystem as its products eventually fail. A mix of factors lent credence to this theory: Apple’s insistence on using materials such as aluminum or glass that are susceptible to bending or breakage; an annual software upgrade cycle that seemed to unnecessarily slow older devices (more on that later); how difficult its devices are to repair yourself; and the rise of specific hardware problems that seem to crop up after a few years of use.
Planned obsolescence isn’t a new criticism for the company. It’s faced accusations since 2011, when it began using more tamper-resistant screws in its products. In a June interview on Daring Fireball’s The Talk Show podcast, Apple marketing vice president Greg Joswiak and AR/VR engineering vice president Mike Roswell talked with host John Gruber about the idea. Joswiak said planned obsolescence was “the craziest thinking in the world, where I give you a shitty experience so you go buy our new product.” He’s right, of course. Why would you risk losing steady revenue-creating customers on the chance that they’ll upgrade their device a little sooner? But it’s still worth looking at why this theory took hold and what the company has done (or failed to do) that has made so many issues feel like supporting evidence.
When Bendgate was making headlines back in 2014, Apple issued a statement defending the structural strength of its iPhone 6 and 6 Plus handsets. Then, in late 2016 it acknowledged that the 6 Plus suffered from an engineering design flaw that made it more susceptible to touch disease. Documents obtained by Motherboard in May show that Apple was aware that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were respectively 3.3 and 7.2 times more likely to bend under pressure than the iPhone 5S, and it knew this information before the devices shipped to consumers. (If Apple regularly compares new product durability with that of its predecessors, it’s possible that something similar could be at play with its butterfly-switch MacBook keyboards.)
But the issue that most prominently suggested that obsolescence is built into the Apple experience is Batterygate. In late 2017, Apple finally acknowledged an issue owners of older iPhones had theorized about for years but with no proof: that the company was purposely slowing down older devices. In Apple’s apologetic explanation, it said that it only began doing this beginning in iOS 10.2.1 as a measure to counter the degradation of older iPhone batteries, which could lead to device shutdowns. As a goodwill measure, the company offered a discounted battery replacement program as well as a software option to enable or disable iOS’s previously secret battery management feature.
While Apple has repeatedly shipped products with known potential defects, it’s not an act of sabotage: These issues are simply the results of design and engineering compromises that have to be made, a sometimes overzealous goal and production schedule, manufacturing issues, or simple human error. In other cases, the scope of some seemingly minor problems may not be completely apparent until the device ships to the masses. Apple’s communication about the issues also engenders the lack of trust that’s led to the rise of the obsolescence theory.
Hardware products are bound to have faults, but they don’t need to feel like the result of a vast conspiracy. With the MacBook butterfly-switch keyboard, Apple may have already quietly addressed the issue: Some report the 2017 MacBook Pro keyboard has a different feel than the problematic 2016 version. Apple knows it has to make a satisfactory fix if it wants Mac users to continue to buy its products in the future. At this point, Apple will have to address its keyboard design before it releases any new MacBooks this year to quell doubts. Will it acknowledge the flaw or simply bulldoze forward with an improved design? Apple enthusiasts, start your theorizing.