Tech by VICE

Apple Should Make a Mechanical Keyboard

Apple seems to be doing everything in its power to minimize the imprint of the button on its trillion-dollar business, but the company could earn some goodwill from creatives with a fresh take on the mechanical keyboard.

by Ernie Smith
Aug 6 2018, 6:49pm

Image: Ernie Smith 

As a company, Apple has traditionally been known throughout its history for two things: It serves creative people from Jeff Goldblum to Grimes, and it hates buttons, going to extreme lengths to minimize or remove them from its designs.

In some ways, that desire to ditch buttons has proven a major benefit for the tech industry in general—see the way the onscreen multitouch keyboard, an Apple original, came to define the smartphone and tablet—but in others, it’s been a major headache, such as with the MacBook Pro’s butterfly keys.

But as Apple struggles to win over creatives with its most recent iterations of the MacBook Pro (to say nothing of its stagnating Mac desktop lineup), the company may want to consider doing something unprecedented, at least for them: It should leap on the buzz around the mechanical keyboard and spend some time building one of its own.

Yes, yes, it goes against Apple’s ethos as a button minimizer—and as recent patent filings suggest, the company is actively heading in the opposite direction by experimenting with Force Touch enabled virtual keys for its laptops—but it would throw a pretty useful bone to the audience of pros that it’s struggling to keep happy.

There are lots of reasons why this would make sense: There is energy around the mechanical keyboard right now, in part because of the same kinds of subcultures that obsess over Apple products, and in part because the patents around the Cherry MX, the key switch that is widely seen as the gold standard for clicky keyboards, have expired, giving competitors an opportunity to leap into the market. People who obsess over mechanical keyboards, which can be found on dozens of subreddits, on dedicated DIY-minded YouTube channels, and on forums like Deskthority and Geekhack, have more in common with Apple enthusiasts than not.

But because Cherry keyswitches have been around so long, there’s room for another company to improve on the design while still keeping the features that people like about mech keys. One recent trend that both Cherry and its Chinese competitor Kailh have pushed is a move toward low-profile switches that mix mechanical capabilities with a design sensibility similar to the chiclet-style keys that Apple popularized with its laptops.

This is still relatively new technology, and finding a keyboard with these switches isn’t easy right now; I recently bought one with Kailh switches that took nearly a month to get to my door, because the keyboard shipped directly from China.

The Drevo Joyeuse mechanical keyboard, with brown Kailh low-profile switches. Image: Ernie Smith

The Drevo Joyeuse mechanical keyboard, with brown Kailh low-profile switches.

Apple could put an imprint on this design strategy without losing its reputation as the king of thinness. And it might win over some of their old-school creatives with this strategy, too; while there are only a handful of mechanical keyboards designed specifically for the Mac, some of the designs out there, such as the Matias Mechanical Pro, are meant to specifically evoke old Mac keyboard designs from the days when mechanical switches were the norm—you know, back before there was USB, WiFi, or Bluetooth. (If Apple doesn’t do it, of course, the community of DIY-minded keyboard makers will fill the niche anyway with their own designs. But given that Apple prides itself for its design, why wouldn’t it want a say here?)

And while nearly everything Apple has done in recent years has suggested the company is moving away from traditional keyboards, there is one piece of evidence that it might be willing to consider a product like this to cater to pros: The addition of a Magic Keyboard with a numeric keyboard, announced last year at the time it first revealed the iMac Pro. The keyboard, while still the same chiclet design the company has sold for its desktop keyboards for a decade, was a small concession that people who use wireless keyboards, many of them pros, still want lots of keys.

Apple is a company that seems dead-set on removing as many mechanical parts from its computers as possible, a phenomenon that has had the side effect of pushing the industry in the same general direction. But the company is at a point where pros are very skeptical of its next moves, because it seems at odds with what its users actually want. Just like there are subcultures of folks obsessing over mechanical keys, there are subcultures of people modding “cheese-grater” Macs so that they run more modern hardware, and high-end users choosing to set up a Hackintosh to keep their workflow but have a bit more flexibility over the machine they use as their main rig.

The company has a lot of work ahead of it to win those users back—and it should, because it's willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars with Apple over the span of many years—and a good starting point might be by selling them a keyboard that they might actually want to type on, even if it goes against the company’s button-minimizing reputation.

Jony Ive’s a busy guy, but I’m sure he could devote the time to making a video with breathless language about a clicky keyboard.