Apple's stubbornness to replace the widely maligned Butterfly-style key switch has stunted the last few generations of MacBooks. But if rumors hold true, that unreliable and uncomfortable laptop keyboard has reached the end of its days.
It is believed that Apple would fall back to using traditional scissor switches on the next MacBook Air and MacBook Pro (as speculated by reputable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo). However, a recently uncovered patent suggests that the company is tinkering with optical switches, or keys with light sensors.
In the patent, which was first spotlighted by Apple Insider, Apple describes a key with a rubber opaque underside and both a light source and light sensor. As the key goes from an uncompressed to a compressed position, the opaque filter blocks more light so that the sensor knows when to actuate a keystroke. The sensor then detects and measures changes in the light being generated as the key is depressed and responds with a corresponding input. This differs from a traditional key mechanism, which is entirely mechanic and requires a physical connection to be made.
There are a few potential downsides to Apple's optical keyboard. First, the keys would lack any tactile click because there is no physical contact between switches. To give you that mechanical feedback, Apple proposes using a "leg portion" that would buckle when the keycap is partially pressed. You're also at the mercy of the light source -- one dead LED and it's another visit to the folks in blue.
As for the positives, an optical keyboard could theoretically allow for more precise actuation and variations in input, similar to the Acer Helios 700's MagForce keyboard, which enables partial actuation for more precise movements while gaming. Apple's optical keyboard could also let you set a personalized actuation point, which would be a huge boon for gamers.
Before you get too excited (or cynical) about this optical keyboard, it's worth noting that Apple filed the patent in Sept 2016 and we haven't heard any rumors about it between then and now. If this were a viable alternative to the troubled Butterfly switches, you'd think that Apple probably would have adopted it by now. Also, this isn't the only keyboard invention the creative folks at Apple have come up with: first there was the touchscreen keyboard then the bendable glass keyboard, both of which are still AWOL.
When the dust settles, Apple will likely either stay with its butterfly-style switches or go back to a more traditional scissor-style switch. But until we know for sure, there's nothing wrong with hoping for something a little more exciting.