Apple investigates retractable keyboards to keep the future MacBook Pro slim

To balance their systemic need for thinness with their customers’ need for something they can really type in, Apple is investigating a keyboard that can fully retract into a MacBook Pro cabinet.

Apple has been careful not to say that the butterfly keyboard is gone, but it turns out to be more than because the lawyers are telling it. Admittedly, if Apple ever said it was crap, there would be a cascade of lawsuits for selling a keyboard that it knew wasn’t working. But it seems Apple isn’t willing to give up this fight for a slim keyboard just yet, either.

“Retractable keyboards,” US Patent Application Number 20200201399, suggests that while Apple may stray away from its keyboard details, it seeks to draw inspiration from IBM’s ancient butterfly keyboard.

It was not a butterfly in the sense that Apple was. With Apple, the butterfly’s description had to do with how each key was mounted on the keyboard and how it reacted when it was pressed. With IBM, it was more about positioning the entire keyboard.

On certain models of the IBM ThinkPad laptop, opening the lid would cause a crushed keyboard to move outward, spreading its wings. By the time the flip was fully open, the mechanism would have transformed the laptop-sized keyboard into the equivalent of a full-size desktop.

The Butterfly keyboard on the IBM ThinkPad 701 moved out when the flip was open.  (Source: Mikebabb on Wiki Commons)
The Butterfly keyboard on the IBM ThinkPad 701 moved out when the flip was open. (Source: Mikebabb on Wiki Commons)

Apple’s new proposal doesn’t mention IBM, and isn’t concerned that a keyboard will extend to be the width of a full-size one. But this is what can happen when the lid of a MacBook Pro is opened or closed.

There is a kind of acknowledgment that users reacted poorly to the butterfly mechanism, not finding that its thinness outweighed other factors. “Users expect devices to have a button or key size that fits well with a finger to press,” he says, “and users generally prefer buttons or keys that provide audible and tactile information when pressed.”

“Therefore, user interfaces, such as keyboards and other buttons, are designed to have a predetermined size and a perceived amount of deviation when pressed,” he continues. “These restrictions can make devices larger than necessary for some tasks, such as when the device’s user interfaces are unused or stored.”

So what Apple wants is a keyboard that users like, but that doesn’t mean having to stop this decades-long shift to thinner devices.

“The keyboards are … made with an internal empty space within their structures to accommodate the movement of the keys,” explains the patent application. “Reducing that space or using it more efficiently can reduce the overall thickness of a device.”

Apple’s proposal refers to different ways to “selectively reduce the thickness of a keyboard by selectively retracting or extending keyboard keys relative to the internal keyboard mount or backing layer.”

The app talks about how the keys can be moved between a neutral position and a retracted position, “or vice versa. That movement is through” moving mechanical or magnetic link elements. [that] they are configured to reposition keys and stabilizers between different relative positions. ”

Detail of patent application showing the gap under a key mechanism

Detail of patent application showing the gap under a key mechanism

At the heart of the different methods, Apple’s contours are a series of “key-stabilizers.” Significantly, those stabilizers are primarily the elements that control what happens when a user presses a key.

“Stabilizers can be scissor mechanisms, butterfly mechanisms, and the like,” says Apple. Before anyone is too relieved that “scissor mechanisms” are mentioned, please note that they are mentioned four times in the app’s 12,000 words. And “butterfly” is mentioned 15 times.

The application is credited to five inventors, including Houtan R. Farahani, who has an earlier patent related to “Cabinet Features for a Portable Computing Device.”