Apple Patents Hint at New MacBook Keyboards

Credit: USPTOCredit: USPTO

Signs that Apple may be planning to ditch MacBook keyboards' butterfly mechanism continues piling up. A couple of patent applications published today by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) describe mechanisms that appear to be related to a new scissor switch -- much like the one used in MacBooks before the butterfly's 2015 debut.

Apple filed the first patent, for "Keycaps Having Reduced Thickness," on February 22. The second patent, "Low-Travel Illuminated Key Mechanism," was filed on March 14. Both appear to be focused on providing better lighting for MacBook keyboards without having to sacrifice durability, performance, or thickness in the process. (And we all know how much Apple hates making thick products.)

It's no secret that keyboards take a beating. Apple said in the first patent application that each key is likely to be hit "several hundred thousand times, if not millions of times, over the life of a device." That's why it it believes there "may be a present need for a durable and aesthetically pleasing external surface for an input device." Put another way: Apple wants to have its keycaps and beat them too.

The patent tries to solve that problem by replacing plastic keycaps with glass version but didn't specify the type of glass. Apple said in the patent application that "in certain cases the glass may be a material such as sapphire, a ceramic or another scratch resistant material." (Sapphire is already used in camera lens covers on recent iPhone and iPad models.) Either way, it's ditching plastic.

Apple's second patent application covers a mechanism that's supposed to allow it to make keyboards that are simultaneously thinner and better-lit than its current offerings. "In many cases," the application says, "traditional keyboards include various mechanical and electrical components that may impede illumination of the keyboard and contribute to an undesirable z-stackup of mechanisms."

So it designed exactly what the patent application's title described: a low-travel illuminated key mechanism that's been designed specifically to make sure backlighting and usability don't have to conflict with each other. Ideally that mechanism would offer some improvements over the butterfly mechanism that has been subject to mass criticism, despite Apple's iterative efforts to improve upon the design.

But the usual caveats about patent applications apply here. Apple could modify the designs before they make their way to a real product; it could also decide not to pursue them any further. We'll believe MacBook keyboards have been restored to their former glory after we get to abuse the keys ourselves. Until then, at least these applications give us hope that the company's aware of these shortcomings.