Apple is known for constantly designing thinner and lighter devices with each successive iteration. A recently published patent with the US Patent & Trademark Office has revealed Apple’s plans to explore a new way to make its laptops thinner without reducing the size of the keys by creating a keyboard that can fully retract into the body of the MacBook.
According to the patent simply titled ‘Retractable Keyboards’ was obtained by Patently Apple, the design places keycaps on stabilisers, which is coupled to a base plate. Within the patent it details how the design makes the keyboard fold upwards when the MacBook’s lid is raised and conversely sink into the base of the device by using a set of “movable magnetic or mechanical linkage elements.”
The patent also shows the keyboard is designed with traditional scissors mechanisms and butterfly mechanisms. Here is an illustration from the patent that demonstrates how the retractable keyboard will be implemented.
The idea for keyboards that retract or “transform” is not entirely new. IBM actually implemented a butterfly keyboard in the IBM ThinkPad 701 which was released 25 years ago back in 1995. Apple’s patent doesn’t go into specifics but it could be looking to take some inspiration from IBM’s old butterfly keyboard.
Admittedly, IBM’s solution is different from Apple as it was more about positioning the entire keyboard. The ThinkPad’s mechanism springs into action when the lid of the laptop is opened. It would cause its laptop-sized keyboard to spread outwards like butterfly wings to the equivalent of a full desktop keyboard.
More recently, Lenovo’s 2013 ThinkPad Yoga also implemented retractable keys that flatten the keys when the 2-in-1 device is converted into tablet or tent mode.
But there is little chance that this mechanism may be similar to Apple’s patent as the proposal doesn’t mention IBM nor does it indicate that the keyboard is made to spread out to a full size keyboard.
Apple’s pursuit for thinner devices led it to come up with the infamously problematic butterfly mechanism for its MacBook keyboards. For years Apple stubbornly stuck with the keyboards which gained a reputation for sticky keys and uncomfortable typing. It ultimately replaced them with the newly updated Magic keyboard switches, first seen in last year’s MacBook Pro 16”.
But just because Apple made the switch away from butterfly keys doesn’t mean the company is done with them. Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller told CNET in a November 2019 interview, that the company will continue to work on the butterfly keyboard. This patent potentially reflects those efforts as it also explains that the stabilizers underneath each key could be “scissor mechanisms, butterfly mechanisms, and similar devices.”
All things considered, it is still early days for Apple’s retractable keyboard concept. Though the patent was only publicly revealed recently, Apple’s application was filed back in August 2019. It still remains to be seen whether this retractable keyboard idea will actually make it to market. Regardless whether this idea comes to pass, it offers an interesting insight into Apple’s design consideration when making its next-generation laptops.