It might not be obvious from unit sales, which appeared to be plateauing before Apple stopped reporting them each quarter, but the company’s most popular Macs — its laptops — are facing an existential crisis. MacBooks have routinely sold at premium prices compared with rival notebooks, such that customers could in some cases buy two new Windows laptops for the price of a single MacBook Pro. But Apple’s lure, a combination of durability and cutting-edge design, has been undone by a years-long reliance on easily damaged “butterfly” keyboards and commodity technologies, including LED screens and Intel chips.
Major changes now appear to be on the horizon. Here are the three key upgrades MacBooks will likely receive over the next year and a half.
Glass fiber keyboards
Apple’s butterfly keyboards have been even more of a public relations disaster than an engineering debacle since their controversial debut in 2015. Introduced alongside the company’s ultra-thin 12-inch MacBook and subsequently added to MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, the butterfly keyboard was designed to reduce laptop chassis size by slimming key mechanisms. Initially, complaints focused on the keys’ reduced “travel” — the shorter, less obviously confirmed distance between unpressed and fully pressed — but over time, the bigger issue became their greater susceptibility to damage, including stickiness and outright failure. Apple has tried to fix the design multiple times since 2015 and resorted to free repair programs and warranty extensions to mitigate user concerns.
The butterfly design is so tainted it needs to be replaced, and Apple has two obvious choices. Long-time Apple patent watchers know the company has spent years working on haptic touchscreen keyboards for laptops — capable of eliminating physical keys in favor of glass displays that can provide tactile feedback with each key press. A version without haptics can be seen in MacBook Pros with Touch Bars.
Poor responses to the Touch Bar suggest it’s not the solution most customers want or are ready to see as a full keyboard replacement at this point in time. If anything, many professional users — a key constituency for Apple’s laptops — want deeper keys with greater travel but would accept something that “just works” reliably over time.
The actual solution, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (via 9to5Mac), will be a revised version of the scissor switch design found in earlier Apple keyboards. Supposedly, glass fiber will be used to internally reinforce the keys, which were previously primarily plastic inside, and the keyboard will offer more travel and superior durability. It remains to be seen whether the material and other changes will actually prove more resilient over years of use, but many Mac users will gladly support a return to a proven design — even if MacBooks need to become a millimeter or two thicker to support it.
Will Apple actually need to go thicker with future MacBooks? If it can thin other elements of the laptops, the answer is no, and thanks to an unexpected issue with iPhone sales, that may be in the cards for its next laptop updates. Over the past year, sales of high-end iPhones have stabilized or slightly fallen after years of solid growth, and Apple has chosen to cut iPhone production rather than adjust prices to increase demand. Consequently, it failed to purchase as many OLED iPhone screens as it was contractually required to buy from Samsung, leading to an 800 billion won ($681 million) reimbursement, Reuters reports, apparently to compensate Samsung for an Apple-specific manufacturing facility that is being underutilized.
Prior to confirmation of the reimbursement, Apple was said to be negotiating with Samsung to convert some of its iPhone OLED purchases into laptop- or tablet-sized OLEDs, a move that could fundamentally change the ways MacBooks and/or iPads look and feel. As Apple Watches and iPhone X/XS models demonstrate, OLEDs can simultaneously reduce screen bezels to single-digit millimeters, eliminate the need for backlighting, and produce deeper blacks than LED screens. On a MacBook, that could lead to a smaller footprint, a thinner top chassis, and a screen that appears to blend seamlessly into its glass frame.
Historically, costs and manufacturing challenges related to larger, high pixel-density displays have dissuaded Apple (and many other companies) from using LEDs in laptops — a situation that could be changing as large OLEDs become more common in TVs and drop in price. Being forced to waste nearly $700 million on otherwise unused OLED production capacity may give Apple the incentive it needs to make the switch sooner rather than later. But the company was also eyeing mini LEDs as an alternative, Kuo noted back in April, due to price advantages.
There doesn’t appear to be any question at this point that Apple will be transitioning away from Intel processors to its own CPUs and GPUs over the next year and a half. Though some observers were optimistic that an ARM-powered Mac might debut at this year’s WWDC, that didn’t happen, but multiple reports have claimed it will happen starting in 2020. Moreover, the transition appears likely to start with laptop-class Apple processors rather than desktop-class ones, such that the company’s lower-powered MacBooks will lead the way instead of compute-hungry iMac Pros or Mac Pros.
For Apple, which tightly controls one of the major sources of Mac software (the Mac App Store) and has plenty of experience with dramatic chip transitions, the Intel-to-ARM switch carries fewer risks than for most other companies. On the software side, the Mac’s prior switch from Power PC chips to Intel was smoother than expected, and Apple appears to be laying the groundwork for an even easier third-party app switch with features such as Catalyst (aka Marzipan) and Bitcode, which will likely automate much of the software conversion process for developers.
Hardware performance gains could be ridiculously huge. Armed with tablet-class A12X Bionic chips, the 2018 iPad Pros already rival Intel Core i7-based MacBook Pros in raw computing power while delivering excellent battery life in much smaller form factors. By 2020, Apple could choose to put much more powerful chips and larger batteries into MacBooks or to keep performance similar in a thinner chassis.
Arguably the biggest risk to Apple is what will happen to users who depend on Boot Camp, the Mac feature that lets Intel-powered machines boot into Windows to run PC apps and games. A switch from Intel chips could kill Boot Camp outright and might push Apple to take another direction — drop Windows support altogether (easy), rely solely on ARM-compatible Windows applications (fairly easy), permit slow-speed Intel Windows emulation (tough), or integrate Windows app support directly into macOS (toughest and most unlikely). Tossing the feature entirely will mean alienating and possibly losing Mac users who still need PC apps for one reason or another, so some sort of compromise would be beneficial, if not necessary.
Don’t expect all these changes at once
While there are definitely going to be some big changes in the near future, don’t expect Apple’s entire laptop line to radically transform simultaneously. Historically, the company rolls out new features to one or two machines at a time before going full-bore into any new technology, as much to accommodate production and component sourcing issues as to mitigate risks of failure with new parts. OLED screens, for instance, might appear first in a high-end MacBook Pro before trickling down into low-end MacBooks, while Apple CPUs and GPUs might pop up first in a thinner, more power-efficient low-end MacBook (bought by people who don’t use Boot Camp).
The one change that will likely appear in Apple’s laptops as soon as possible is the revised scissor keyboard. It’s reportedly going to arrive first in 2019 MacBook Air models, which are likely to debut in October, before coming to MacBook Pros in 2020. Making the keyboard switch quickly will help Apple reduce longevity concerns about its machines, setting the stage for more dramatic improvements in the year to come.