Apple's Phil Schiller on reinventing the new MacBook Pro keyboard

Apple's marketing chief shares his thoughts on butterfly vs. scissor keyboards and whether the 16-inch MacBook Pro's Magic Keyboard will appear in other Macs.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
12 min read

Apple's marketing chief, Phil Schiller, talks about the MacBook Pro's new redesigned keyboard. 

James Martin/CNET

The fastest way to get hardcore MacBook users on a rant is to ask them about the butterfly keyboard. Love it or hate it, Apple fans have passionate opinions about the company's decision to use a mechanism with a hinge in the middle that gives the keyboard its name. But the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, announced Wednesday, comes with an new keyboard that could change the conversation entirely.

The butterfly keyboard, unveiled with Apple's 12-inch MacBook for 2015, drew criticism for its less-than-pleasing tactile sensation and for quality-control issues that left some people frustrated by doubled or dropped letters as they typed. Apple said it's improved the keyboard, now in its third generation, and is offering a replacement program.  CNET Editor Scott Stein says it's not quite like the old-school MacBook keyboard in his first take. "Think of the new MacBook Pro keyboard as a happy medium between the two," he says. 

Watch this: Has the new MacBook Pro finally fixed Apple's keyboard problem?

The new MacBook Pro, which replaces the 15-inch version, is Apple's most direct response to the backlash. The company has taken the scissor mechanism of its standalone Magic Keyboard and used it to power the keyboard in its new laptop. The hope is that this new keyboard will appease the professionals Apple wants to win back.

The challenge, says Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller, was taking the best of the Magic Keyboard, an accessory designed for desktop computers such as the upcoming Mac Pro, which launches in December, and adapting and evolving it for the new notebook.

"People sometimes underestimate how much work goes into a keyboard, and that's why most keyboards in the industry don't change for 10 or 20 years," Schiller said in an interview. "We decided that while we were advancing the butterfly keyboard, we would also -- specifically for our pro customer -- go back and really talk to many pro customers about what they most want in a keyboard and did a bunch of research. The team took the time to do the work to investigate, research, explore and reinvent."

Schiller spoke to me ahead of the MacBook launch about the new keyboard, whether it will show up in future products and his vision for where the Mac and iPad are going. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

Q: Walk me through the feedback you got on the butterfly keyboard and how that informed the new scissor-based keys.
Schiller: As you know, a number of years ago we started a new keyboard technology with this butterfly keyboard and began it with MacBook. It had some things it did really well, like creating a much more stable key platform. It felt more firm and flat under your finger --  some people really like that, but other people weren't really happy with that. We got sort of a mixed reaction. We had some quality issues we had to work on. Over the years we've been refining that keyboard design, and we're now on the third generation, and a lot of people are much happier with that as we've advanced and advanced it.


The new MacBook Pro has a keyboard using a different mechanism than the standard butterfly design of other MacBooks. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

But a few years back, we decided that while we were advancing the butterfly keyboard, we would also -- specifically for our pro customer -- go back and really talk to many pro customers about what they most want in a keyboard and did a bunch of research. That's been a really impressive project, the way the engineering team has gotten into the physiology of typing and the psychology of typing -- what people love.

As we started to investigate specifically what pro users most wanted, a lot of times they would say, "I want something like this Magic Keyboard, I love that keyboard." And so the team has been working on this idea of taking that core technology and adapting it to the notebook, which is a different implementation than the desktop keyboard, and that's what we've come up with [for] this new keyboard. We're doing both in advancing the butterfly keyboard, and we're creating this new Magic Keyboard for our Pro notebooks.

What work went into getting the Magic Keyboard into a laptop design?
To make this new scissor mechanism work appropriately in a notebook, we had to adapt it to the angle, which is different in a notebook than in a slanted desktop design for ergonomics. And it had to work in a design that had a backlight, which the notebook has that desktops do not.

While the team was doing it, they discovered there were some things we liked about the butterfly keyboard, like the way it created this whole stable key platform at the top. We wanted to enhance the switch mechanism to support that kind of a feel, and we learned a little bit about the acoustics and the psychology of what is pleasing when you click a key. We had to advance the rubber dome design underneath the key to create the right feel and pressure. We had to increase the travel in the notebook back to about a millimeter because a lot of pros like a little bit longer travel, yet fit it into a thin and light design.

Throughout the process, the team reexamined the ideal size key cap -- you can make it too big, and there's not much space between them -- and people felt that that we wanted to provide a little more space between the keys than the butterfly mechanism has for optimal feel for professional typists.

There's a bunch of learning that happened. Some because of moving the desktop keyboard to the notebook and some because we just learned more along the way and wanted to further advance the technology.

Will this keyboard find its way to other MacBooks? There are folks who don't need the power of the MacBook Pro, but may appreciate the tactile experience.
I can't say today. We are continuing both keyboard designs.

How hard would it be to put the new keyboard into a slimmer design?
Keyboards in general are a lot of work. People sometimes underestimate how much work goes into a keyboard, and that's why most keyboards in the industry don't change for 10 or 20 years. Adapting that to a notebook is more work. It's not impossible, but it's definitely a lot of work.

The butterfly keyboard got lots of negative feedback and its share of bad press. How did you take that feedback?
We love these things and we know our customers love them, and so people get very passionate on all sides of these things. When we get feedback on products, and [what] I think the team deserves a lot of credit for, is always stepping back, not overreacting --  spending the time to do the work, to study and make sure we understand what most customers think.

There's always something to learn to make a product better, no matter what the feedback, and so what can we do to make it better? Can we make it better along the lines of what we already have, or do we need to go in another direction -- and for who? The team took the time to do the work to investigate research, explore and reinvent. The team has learned a lot over the last few years in this area.

Up close and personal with the new 16-inch MacBook Pro

See all photos

Do you see this keyboard as a pro-tier feature?
Some of the most passionate feedback about the keyboard was coming from pro customers. We thought that was the right place to do the work on the new Magic Keyboard.

The Touch Bar is back, and there isn't an option to not have it. What's the feedback been on that feature?
We questioned everything in this new MacBook Pro. Nothing got away without some scrutiny and discussion and debate. That includes the Touch Bar. There is a fairly large number of customers who use the Touch Bar and see great benefit in some of its features, but there were also some complaints. If I were to rank the complaints, No. 1 was customers who like a physical Escape key. It was just a hard adaptation for a lot of people.

We decided that rather than just remove the Touch Bar and lose the benefits some people get, we could instead add the Escape key. While we were doing that, we had already in the MacBook Air created a discrete Touch ID button. People really like that. So the decision was made to keep the Touch Bar, but also to create room on either side for the Escape key and Touch ID key. That is the best solution for the largest number of people we've dealt with who had complaints -- and kept something innovative that people were using with Touch Bar.

There's also more space between the Touch Bar and the keys.
Since the X and Y of the MacBook Pro is a teeny bit larger -- up 2% -- we wanted to use some of that little bit of extra space between the top of the number of keys and the bottom of the Touch Bar, because there was a minor complaint, I wouldn't say major, that some people accidentally would touch the Touch Bar when they meant to hit the number keys.

A teeny bit of space can make a big difference there.

What are you doing to get more developers to take advantage of the Touch Bar? One of the knocks on it is there aren't a lot of applications that take advantage of that.
That's actually an old view. If people looked again, they would realize that support has gone up quite a bit. Most applications use it now. We're seeing adoption across a tremendous number of Mac apps. Our developer relations team works with a lot of our Mac developers to help them with that support. So we do see support has been growing through the years and it's much further along than people thought from the beginning.

Today's news is all about the MacBook Pro 16 and Mac Pro, but where does the iPad Pro fit in this pro lineup?
We look at these things a bit independently. The Mac has a tremendous customer base. It's grown over the years, especially as you go up the product line towards the pro products. A lot of people count on it to get their job done. It has an important place in many people's lives and we believe in that, and are continuing to develop along that path. The things that people love about their Mac is exactly the things we're working to make better and better.

iPad was created, as you may remember when Steve [Jobs] announced it just about a decade ago now, to be a new-category product between your iPhone and your Mac, and something that had to create its own reason to exist to fill a need in your life.

It was literally to create a different product category. A couple years ago, we split off and created the iPad Pro. This has been a wonderful thing because it allowed us to create two models where we can push the technology. It really accelerated the use cases for iPad.

So now there are a lot of cases where people will use iPad, especially with Pencil, as an artist-creation tool or as a field-compute tool. What we find is there's a fair number of people who actually spend more of their compute time on their iPad than personal computer. They didn't choose one or the other. That's just where they spent a lot of their time.

What the team has done is try to find ways that the two can work together, where one plus one equals three instead of two. We've created technologies like Sidecar that allow your iPad to work alongside your Mac, and that you do use the Pencil on Mac applications. The idea of a second display on the road, that's flexible enough when you travel, is a really cool solution for pro users. And so that fills a need...no one's ever done that before.

We allow customers to decide which one they want to spend more time on and then we try to find ways they work together if you happen to have both.

You don't envision a future where they merge?
No, that's not our view. Because then you get this in-between thing, and in-between things are never as good as the individual things themselves. We believe the best personal computer is a Mac, and we want to keep going down that path. And we think the best tablet computing device is an iPad, and we'll go down that path.

iPad benefits because we assume that you need to be able to do most everything with touch, and we don't have to trade off on that experience. Mac assumes you want to do most everything with a keyboard and mouse input. We don't have to trade off on that path. You can look at some of the other products that will try to go halfway between the two. They end up just compromising experiences. That's not good.

What about adding a touchscreen to a Mac? In your mind, would that be a compromise?
That engineering effort is better spent on making the Mac be the best keyboard-trackpad experience possible. That's what our customers want us to spend our time on.

Can you talk about the fervent Mac fan base and how important it is to Apple's mystique and reputation?
I don't use words like that because I think people use those against our customers to make them sound a little crazy and religious. And that's not really the case when you meet them. We just have great customers who love the Mac.

College students' [use] is dominated by Macs. In the majority of creative fields -- writers, video editors, music creators and programmers -- I think that's an area that's super strong. We love that intersection of creativity and computing technology. That's something that's always been true to the core of what we love at Apple.

It's not about religion, it's not about fans. It's actually about the right product for incredibly creative productive groups of people with their computers.

Let's talk about creatives. Many have moved on to Microsoft Windows. How are you looking to convince them to switch platforms?
There's always been a competitive world of people between Windows and Mac. That isn't new. Historically, we're actually the ones gaining share. I think that's going to increasingly happen, especially as more and more mobile technology is a part of our life, like iPhone, more and more. Internet technology and software as a service levels the platform playing field.

The technology trends have benefited Apple the most. The PC world is a world of sameness. You have commodity hardware [and] a generic operating system that has to work on a lot of stuff so it doesn't work great on any one thing.

We have this incredible responsibility to make sure the hardware and software is designed seamlessly together, works the way you want, and those things all ultimately make it so that as a customer, you have ease of use. That's what we strive to do with the Mac.

That will always be one of our great advantages against the generic PC world where things just don't all work together as well and as seamlessly as good as that.

Privacy is an issue you've taken a public stand on. What have you found with your consumer research and where privacy stacks as a priority?
Privacy and security is becoming more important to people.

If you go back not too many years, very few people would ever bring it up as a concern or a topic, at least not one that would impact their decision of products to buy or platforms to use. That's changing very quickly. As it's become more newsworthy, there's more security issues that are being reported on daily.

We all have growing concerns about this. We just feel like we're doing the right thing for our customer. And if over time, more of them care about it and make purchase decisions about it, that's great, but that isn't why we do it. We do it because we think it's the right thing to do.

You talked about MacBook as popular with college students. But Chromebooks have grown in the education market. What's your perspective on that?
In the K-12 market, particularly for the lower grades -- K through six to nine -- iPad is doing really well. We think it is the ultimate tool for a child to learn on.

We're really investing a lot into continuing to grow, both from the enterprise side with manageability and tools to helping schools from a learning experience. Everything from our Everyone Can Code curriculum that has our Swift Playgrounds app to help children at a very young age learn how to understand software and create opportunities for kids to become developers, all the way to augmented reality.

We did a study, many many years ago in education, about the importance and the role of technology in the classroom, how can it help with the education process. The result of this education research we did was that the students who succeed are the ones who are most engaged, which is really simple. 

Kids who are really into learning and want to learn will have better success. It's not hard to understand why kids aren't engaged in a classroom without applying technology in a way that inspires them. You need to have these cutting-edge learning tools to help kids really achieve their best results.

Yet Chromebooks don't do that. Chromebooks have gotten to the classroom because, frankly, they're cheap testing tools for required testing. If all you want to do is test kids, well, maybe a cheap notebook will do that. But they're not going to succeed.