Apple has agreed to pay a total of $50 million to consumers who owned and had to replace a keyboard on a series of MacBooks and MacBook Pros produced between 2015 and 2019, giving at least the semblance of accountability for the environmental and usability disaster that resulted from Apple’s “butterfly” keys—the worst keyboard design ever put into mass production.
The payment is part of a settlement in a four-year-long class action lawsuit. As part of the settlement, Apple did not admit fault (but has since totally redesigned its keyboards). Court documents note that the case involved the review of 1.2 million pages of documents and 38 depositions. As part of the settlement, people who needed multiple keyboard replacements will get up to $300, people who needed one keyboard replacement will get up to $125, and people who only needed key cap replacements will get $50.
As part of Apple’s seemingly singular quest during the mid-2010s to make its products thinner, more elegant, and more beautiful at the expense of usability, repairability, recyclability, and sustainability, the company introduced the Butterfly Keyboard in its laptops. This keyboard was included on roughly 15 million laptops sold in the United States, according to the lawsuit.
This keyboard used a new type of “switch,” the mechanism that detects when a key is pressed and pushes it back up to a resting position after it’s been pressed. The butterfly mechanism had less “travel” than other types of switches, meaning that the key didn’t go down as far after it’d been pushed. This led to a worse typing feel, but also, crucially, the butterfly mechanism was made of extremely fragile plastic and was also easily felled by specks of dust and crumbs. Eventually, multiple keys would get stuck in the pressed position, wouldn’t register key presses, or wouldn’t register key presses but then would register multiple key presses when you pressed it, an infuriating occurrence that seemingly happened to the vast majority of people who ever owned a MacBook with one of these keyboards.
To make matters much, much worse, these keyboards were incredibly difficult to repair or replace; for a while, Apple’s strategy to “fix” a keyboard that had a few broken keys was to simply replace the entire bottom half of the computer. This is, as you can imagine, incredibly wasteful, very expensive, and likely caused many people to upgrade their computers earlier than they would have otherwise had to. One of the best strategies for temporarily "fixing" the keyboard was to turn it upside down, blow on it, and slam on the broken key repeatedly, a ridiculous process that nonetheless was sometimes successful in dislodging a crumb or speck of dust.
Apple first slightly redesigned the butterfly keyboard, then did away with it entirely in 2020, bringing back the older but more reliable “scissor” switches. MacBook keyboards are now beloved by most.