Why Customers Are Complaining About Apple’s Keyboards

2018 Touch Bar MacBook Pro keyboard membrane

It’s irritating when the keyboard on a MacBook of some kind fails. But are the complaints out of proportion? Let’s explore the underlying issues.

Armchair Stats

Let’s do some simple estimation.

Apple sells about 20 million Macs per year. Given the popularity of the MacBook/Air/Pro line, I estimate 12 million of those are a MacBook of some kind. Further, let’s estimate that there’s a one percent failure rate of the keyboards per year. That’s a fairly conservative, generous estimate. That means there could be as many as 120,000 keyboard failures per year.

Further, let’s suppose that half of the failures are due to foreign object damage and half are the expected variance in manufacturing tolerances. That leaves Apple responsible for 60,000 failures per year.

Of course, this is just a back-of-the-envelope estimate, but it’s a starting point. If the failure rate were actually much lower, we’d still be looking at tens of thousands of failures per year. 30,000 suggests about 12 repairs per U.S. state per week. (BTW, here’s Apple’s Keyboard Service Program for MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro.)

That’s what Apple sees from a Big Numbers perspective. The problem is that the accumulated failures make a disproportionate splash in the very effective social media/blogosphere. That’s where one story gets read thousands of times. And of course, each new story magnifies that effect.

In that social process, we don’t get much of a perspective from the standpoint of industry standards. Do HP, Dell and Lenovo have the same kind of failure rates? We don’t know. I certainly haven’t seen any numbers from Apple.

But Apple is always in the spotlight. There are people who earn a good living agitating about Apple’s problems.

But there’s another valid factor that’s more important.

Premium Brand

Like some high-end car models, Apple charges more because it’s a premium brand. Apple touts that it only makes the best, and some of us gladly pay that premium. Over at Gizmodo, Adam Clark Estes, in “Apple Finally Did the Right Thing (Sort of).” writes:

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!

Apple engineers might argue that there’s no such thing as manufacturing perfection. But I would also note that it’s possible, when charging a significant premium, to reduce the failure rate, through design excellence, to a level so low that occasional keyboard failures never become much of an issue.

An let’s not foget two other things. The Butterfly design arose via Apple’s obsession with a fashionably thin case. Secondly, Apple’s accounting breakdown for the computer dictates that a certain profit be maintained. And so, Apple’s constraints are are really self-inflicted.

Apple has been making notebook computers for just under 30 years, and I’ve been there from the beginning. (PowerBook 100 in 1992.) I’ve never noticed that the expected (low) manufacturing failure rate for previous keyboards has raised such a fuss. Likely, hundreds of petastrokes have been typed on the old Scissors mechanism.

User Expectations

In summary, I think this affair is a self-inflicted wound that Apple would love to ignore, but has been forced to fess up to thanks to the power of modern, pervasive communication. It’s all fueled by the idea that these very expensive devices, with moving parts, should be practically perfect. And they should.

I hope Apple isn’t thinking about bailing and converting to virtual, LCD keyboards on MacBook/Air/Pro as we’re accustomed to on our iOS devices. That would be a cop out. The real answer is to engineer these keyboards with extreme passion and engineering excellence, even if the profit takes a very tiny hit. Apple’s brand is worth those measures.

Hopefully, the 4th Gen keyboards in the new MacBook Pros just released achieve the above engineering goals. A potentially US$3,000 notebook computer deserves obsessive keyboard design, and that’s the reality behind all this fuss.

9 thoughts on “Why Customers Are Complaining About Apple’s Keyboards

  • If the laptops were in the £399.00 range no one would complain about the keyboard. It’s the fact that Apple laptops are a premium computer and as with anything that is in that range, people expect a level of quality. As they would with Bentley, Ferrari or Cartier. Apple can’t escape from such perceptions and the right thing to do is look at the balance between functionality and design, that’s where the problems lie.

  • In the Six Sigma world today, failure rates of 5% is totally unacceptable, and even 1% is unacceptable for a premium product. Those high failure rates come about by either 1. design deficiencies (parts are over stressed or not manufacturable) or 2. manufacturing process variance (process doesn’t provide the accuracy the design calls for.

    In today’s world of reliable products (where human safety isn’t involved), the expectation of upper level management is Six Sigma design and manufacturing, and they will live with rates as high as 5-Sigma depending on the cost of warranty (and loss of good will) on field failures. 4-sigma would be marginal at best, and 3-Sigma would be horrible.

    For the 12 million MacBooks noted above in the article, the defects per million in Sigma is:
    3-Sigma level would be 825,732 failures (93.3% good)
    4-Sigma level would be 74,520 failures (99.4% good)
    5-Sigma level would be 2,796 failures (99.98% good)
    6-Sigma level would be 41 failures (99.9997% good).

    In my experience, nobody can afford 6-Sigma hardware unless you’re talking about things than can cause loss of life.

  • In addition to the keyboard disaster (which I am using now as I type this), I completely agree with archimedes about the trackpad. I turned off “force touch” (or whatever it is) within the first week because it was driving me crazy, and the palm rejection is absolutely awful. More often than not I am typing only to have new text inserted in some random place in my document; many obscenities are issued every time this happens.

    I also hate the touchbar, because I always have to undo whatever disaster it brought up when I hit it accidentally — which is most of the time. Give me back my physical buttons, please!

    1. Ah yes, the insertion pointer jumping around madly as you type so that you can’t finish a paragraph. Happens all the time with that miserable trackpad, irrespective of settings. Did anyone actually test these things?

    2. got to agree about the track pad – too big and palm rejection is the pits
      they don’t work, seriously Apple, they don’t
      keyboards that don’t work are unacceptable in ANY number – it’s like saying the steering wheel in the car might fail – it just CAN”T

  • This is trying to Spin the story into big number problem, it is not.

    First the Portable Mac business are 80% of all Mac Sold, that was coming directly from Phil in a 2017 Interview. And percentage is way higher than 1%, Apple has stated it is not higher than 5%. But if 5% of failure rate within the first year of its purchase is an acceptable number then there is no point discussing it further.

    Second there are lots and lots of people with failed keyboard and will not want to wait 2 weeks for it to be fixed. Given it is the most important input on a Mac. Hence the number don’t include those who didn’t bring them in. Then there are people bring those to Third Party, although I assume Apple will know from its parts ordering.

    Third, we have many Apple Retail employees speaking that the new Keyboard Failure rate, as in Percentage are already higher than Previous Gen.

    It is not the law of bigger number. And it is not blow out of proportion. Customers have been complaining since 2016 and 2017, It wasn’t until a Journalist get the treatment herself in 2018 and decided to publish an article on it that went viral, before Apple took limited action. And it wasn’t until Business Insider and WSJ to publish something similar in their own experience before they admitted ( in a way ) their mistake.

  • They are complaining about the “butterfly” keyboards because they are terrible. The older chiclet design was better to type on and much more reliable.

    The trackpad is also terrible; somehow Apple managed to break palm rejection (which works fine on iPads and also worked properly on earlier MacBook Pro models) and there is really no fix for it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.