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It’s time for Apple’s next act of courage: Kill the MacBook keyboard

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When Apple killed the headphone jack in 2016, marketing chief Phil Schiller gave a strange reason for doing so. “The reason to move on: courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us,” he said.

Schiller was lambasted for the quote, but the truth is Apple has introduced several innovative ideas long before its rivals: things like the computer mouse, killing disc drives, and of course, removing physical keys from smartphones

All of these moves had a dramatic impact on the way we use computers, even though when the changes were introduced, they were such radical departures from the industry norm that they attracted widespread skepticism. In each case, Apple wasn’t the first to develop a new technology, but it was usually the first to get the timing right: Apple would seize upon a confluence of consumer electronics trends to make a huge change.

It’s time for Apple to end the tyranny of the physical keyboard altogether. 

Now, with the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) around the corner, the time is ripe for Apple to take the same fearless approach and give us some sweet relief from the godforsaken MacBook Pro keyboard, which is increasingly seen as a major boondoggle.

I was reminded of just how deep my contempt is for the MacBook Pro keyboard when an Apple patent recently revealed the company is developing a newer, crumb-resistant version of the keyboard I’ve come to hate. The concept, according to the patent, would use a combination of gaskets, brushes, wipers, and flaps to seal any gaps that would otherwise let small crumbs and dust into the keyboard structure. 

In short, the patent sounds like a miracle to anyone who uses the MacBook Pro keyboard every day, because the keys would no longer jam so easily.

An Apple patent explains how a new keyboard design would use a variety of techniques to prevent dust and other particles from jamming the keys.

An Apple patent explains how a new keyboard design would use a variety of techniques to prevent dust and other particles from jamming the keys.

But that particular patent falls short of solving the real problem: that the keys shouldn’t move at all. If you think about it, physical keyboards are less relevant than they’ve ever been, because of the proliferation of smartphones. Nowadays, people often rely on autocorrect and predictive keyboard software when they type most everyday messages. That means we regularly hit the wrong keys and mistype words, but intelligent software is there to save us.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest that we start moving toward a similar model on laptops. That is to say: It’s time for Apple to end the tyranny of the physical keyboard altogether and build a laptop with a full touchscreen keyboard.

I know, the idea sounds crazy, but I didn’t come up with it on my own — I stole it directly from Apple’s engineers.

Goodbye, Chiclet keys

Apple has repeatedly filed patents indicating it’s interested in getting rid of physical keyboards on laptops and desktop computers. For example, in 2016 Apple was awarded a patent describing “a configurable, force-sensitive input structure for an electronic device.” 

The patent describes a “zero travel” input method, which Apple defines as “imperceptible or unrecognizable movement of components of the input structure.” The patent also says, “The input structure has a metal contact layer, a sense layer positioned below the metal contact layer, and a drive layer capacitively coupled to the sense layer.”

In case the language is confusing, just take a look at the patent photos:

A 2016 Apple patent describes a concept called “zero travel,” which the company defines as imperceptible or unrecognizable movement on the keyboard and touchpad.

A 2016 Apple patent describes a concept called “zero travel,” which the company defines as imperceptible or unrecognizable movement on the keyboard and touchpad.

The description in the filing is very similar to Apple’s description of its “Force Touch” trackpads used on the MacBook Pro. The current trackpads include haptic technology that sense movement from a person’s fingers on the surface. “The trackpad features built-in force sensors that allow you to click anywhere and haptic feedback that provides a responsive and uniform feel,” according to Apple. In more simple terms: A small motor inside the trackpad vibrates to give the user feedback on what they’re touching — even though it’s not actually moving.

The 2016 patent suggests Apple could eventually use similar haptic technology inside of a gigantic touchscreen in order to let users control their laptops. The surface could be used as a keyboard, trackpad, number pad, or anything else you might want to use in order to control your computer.

The second touchscreen, as described by the patent, would also include “a haptic feedback module in electrical communication with the input structure and providing a haptic signal to the contact portion of the casing.” In other words: It would vibrate when you touched it.

In this scenario, where Apple would replace the physical keyboard for a giant touchscreen, haptic technology would be critical. Haptic technology essentially recreates the sense of touch through vibrations and forces, and there are few companies that currently do it better than Apple. With the proper haptic feedback technology, I believe a touchscreen could be just as good — if not better! — than physical keys that travel.

Apple has expressed interest in developing a laptop without physical keys in more than one patent, too. In February, the company was awarded yet another patent that describes a laptop without a traditional keyboard.

A 2018 Apple patent describes something involving “dual display equipment with enhanced visibility and suppressed reflections.”

A 2018 Apple patent describes something involving “dual display equipment with enhanced visibility and suppressed reflections.”

In this patent filing, Apple describes in explicit detail how it would build a device with a display “mounted in a first housing and a second display…mounted in a second housing that is adjacent to the first housing.” In simpler terms, it describes two screens bolted together.

Apple didn’t stop there. A more revealing 2018 Apple patent plainly describes how the company might eventually kill the physical keyboard. The application says traditional keyboards “lack the flexibility to accommodate expansive features offered by newer devices, operating systems, and software” and are “unable to adapt to different user needs and preferences.”

A 2018 Apple patent  filing titled "Keyless keyboard with force sensing and haptic feedback" explains how the company could one day kill physical keyboards.

A 2018 Apple patent  filing titled “Keyless keyboard with force sensing and haptic feedback” explains how the company could one day kill physical keyboards.

Apple instead proposes a new type of hardware, something even more flexible than even current touchscreen technology. The 2018 patent filing describes how a top glass layer would include two force-sensing systems to determine when a user is pressing down in addition to a touch-sensing system to determine where a users’ fingers are. Haptic feedback would be provided by actuators, which would give a response for each time you “press” a key.

A 2018 patent filing describes how Apple would build an adaptive display that can detect where a user is pressing and how hard.

A 2018 patent filing describes how Apple would build an adaptive display that can detect where a user is pressing and how hard.

The result is that the keyboard would be able to change what is shown depending on who’s using it and what the context is. It could change languages, alphabets, from buttons to sliders, and even become a drawing pad all within seconds. 

Companies have, of course, tried to kill the physical keyboard in the past and failed miserably. Microsoft’s 2012 Surface Touch Cover comes to mind, but it’s worth noting that it didn’t have any haptic feedback — a critical component — and it wasn’t nearly as flexible as a touchscreen would be.

If my dream comes true, and I think it will, Apple is going to turn the physical keyboard on the MacBook into a touchscreen someday soon. And we’ll all be better for it. It’s going to make our devices way more flexible, and it might even make some of us more accurate typists — assuming the new devices rely as heavily on predictive software as our phones currently do.

I’ve just about had enough of my MacBook Pro keyboard — and I honestly can’t imagine anything much worse than the device I’m using today. The “a” and “p” key jams regularly, and it’s caused me to backspace about a million times while writing this article.

So please, Apple, Mr. Jony Ive, Mr. Phil Schiller, Mr. Tim Cook, whoever is out there listening: Do me a solid and kill the physical keyboard in the next generation of the MacBook.

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