Saturday, January 7, 2017

I think Apple is killing the keyboard by slow boiling

I’m pretty sure Apple is planning to kill the mechanical keyboard in the near future. What’s interesting is how they’re going about it.

Apple has killed/"moved forward" a lot of tech by unilateral fiat, including the floppy drive, DVD drive, and of course various ports and cables. (Can we just stop for a minute and consider the collective internet brainpower wasted arguing about the merits of these moves? (Yes, I can appreciate the irony.).)

The strategy with the keyboard, however, is something different. For the past several design iterations, the keyboard travel has been getting thinner and thinner, to the point where the travel on the latest keyboards is pretty tiny. It’s pretty easy to see that the direction Apple is headed is towards a future in which the keyboard has no mechanical keys, but is rather some sort of iPad like thing, perhaps with haptic feedback, but with no keys in the traditional sense of the term. (The force touch trackpad and the new touch bar are perhaps harbingers of this move.)

What’s interesting is how Apple is making this transition. With the other transitions, Apple just pulls the plug on a tech (Firewire, I barely knew thee), leading to squealing by a small but not insignificant number of very visible angry users, modestly annoyed shrugs from everyone else, and a Swiss-Army-knife-like conglomeration of old projector adapters wherever I go give presentations. With this keyboard transition, though, the transition has been far more gradual—and the pundit class has consequently been far more muted. Instead of the usual “Apple treats their users with utter contempt!” “Apple is doomed by their arrogance!” and so forth, the response is more like “huh, weird, but you’ll get used to it.” Perhaps this reflects more the fact that there’s no way to “transition” to a new port interface (there is no port equivalent to “reduced key travel”, although perhaps microUSB qualifies), but still.

Why might Apple be doing this? There are three possibilities I can think of. First, one formal possibility is that there could be some convenience/cost benefit to Apple to doing this, like reduced component cost or whatever. This strikes me as unlikely for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it is almost certainly a pain in the butt to keep designing new keyboards. Another possibility is that the there is some tradeoff, most obviously with thickness: clearly, having a shorter travel will let you make a thinner computer. While this is a likely scenario, and perhaps the most likely, there are some reasons to question this explanation. For instance, why do the keyboards on the desktop Macs (remember those?) also have shorter key travel now? One could say that it’s to maintain parity with laptops, but then again, anyone suffering through desktop Macs these knows that parity isn’t exactly the name of Apple’s game these days—frankly, the keyboard is just about the only thing that got updated on the iMacs in the last several years. Which leads to the third possibility, which is that having a non-mechanical keyboard (essentially a big iPad) down there would enable new interfaces and so forth. Hmm. Well, either way, I think we’ll find out soon.

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