Schiller introduces the previous MacBook's keyboard during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California
Schiller introduces the previous MacBook's keyboard during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California

New MacBook Pro: Apple executive Phil Schiller on how it listened to feedback to build, and fix, its new laptop

In an exclusive interview, Apple's marketing chief explains how the latest 16-inch device was built in response to intense feedback on its keyboard and approach

Andrew Griffin
New York
Wednesday 13 November 2019 14:30
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Phil Schiller wants you to know he is listening. Apple's marketing boss might be better known for what he has to say – he helped shaped the company's most famous products, and helped introduce them to the world – but as he introduces Apple's brand-new MacBook Pro, he is taking notice.

"Customers don't realise the power they have – to influence our direction and what we do with their feedback," he says.

The new MacBook Pro is, according to Apple, testament to that power. It does away with a keyboard that Apple launched with grand fanfare that was gradually drowned out by complaints from people who said they were unable to type certain letters.

It is also the first of Apple's computers to emerge from Apple's shake-up of the way it creates devices for professionals, after users complained that the upper end of the market was being neglected. It fixes minor complaints by bringing back the escape key; it fixes bigger ones, such as its battery life, by filling it with the biggest battery Apple could put into a computer. It is a laptop made from feedback.

It is a powerful new computer, packed with masses of storage and more powerful components than ever seen in Apple's laptops. The battery could not be bigger, Apple says, because it is at the maximum size that is allowed to be taken on a plane. It includes loud new speakers and a microphone the company says is good enough to record songs on. It has a bigger display – a 16-inch screen – at the same price as the old 15-inch device that it replaces.

But for all those specs and details, there is going to be one question that surrounds it: the keyboard. Four years ago, Apple introduced an entirely redesigned new MacBook that included an entirely redesigned new keyboard.

Slowly, but surely, the new keyboard came unstuck. Or, more precisely, it became stuck: reports began to roll in about the fact that keys on the new keyboard would individually break, leading them either to not press or to press multiple times. Apple called the new technology its "butterfly keyboard" after the shape of the mechanism beneath the buttons, and it felt perfect; beautiful, yes, but brittle and prone to breaking tragically.

Over the years, as Apple refreshed the laptops, it tried a variety of ways to make the keyboards good. It introduced a new membrane that sat under the keys and attempted to keep them in good order; it rolled out a replacement programme that meant anyone with affected keys could get their MacBook fixed quickly.

But now it has a new approach, and a new keyboard. Gone is the slim, tappy design of the old butterfly keyboard and back is the scissor mechanism found in its less controversial designs. (The keyboard also features a real escape key and brings back the "inverted T" shaped arrow buttons at the bottom, both of which had caused some complaints of their own when they were removed.)

"One of the things that's always been really great about how Apple approaches all feedback is that I don't think we do a knee jerk reaction, or overreaction, and try to do things just because people want us to do things," he says.

"When we get any feedback – good, bad or otherwise – we take the time to research, and study, and analyse and figure out what would be the best thing, not only just for now but for the long term.

"In the case of the keyboard, I'm really, really proud that the team worked really hard to do something innovative, and take something this simple that we use every day, like a keyboard, and try to find a new way to do things."

The butterfly keyboard that came out of the process four years ago, with the 2015 MacBook, might have gone on to cause Apple a number of issues. But Schiller is clear that it led to advances, too, and those have been preserved in the new design.

"From that some really positive things happened: a more stable key surface, thinner designs, and a bunch of really good things. But, as you know, not all the feedback was good.

"Rather than just 'OK, never mind, back to the old thing', the team simultaneously worked to make that butterfly mechanism better and better, and to see how far we could keep pushing that. They took the time to research and say: 'OK, if we want to do something else going forward, why? What should we do, how should we do it? What can we learn that we didn't know before? And how do we end up in a place even better than had we never even tried?'

"And so that means sometimes taking the time," he says. "There are so many smart people at Apple – so many engineers and designers, that when you turn them loose to go and spend some time and get deep on something, it's just pretty remarkable.

"And it does take time, and this took time. But hopefully we've come out with something smarter than had we never tried the first one."

Apple might be sure that the new keyboard is both an improvement and a response to the current one's problems. But that's no guarantee that it won't run into problems: the company seemed genuinely confident that the butterfly keyboard was an entirely positive, breakthrough innovation last time around, too. It even seemed they were right, until the angry clatter of broken keyboards became too loud to ignore and it was clear that something had gone quite wrong with the new design.

So how can they be confident that won't happen this time around – that this is another design which, under the hands of customers, might turn out to have its own problems and its own failures? Schiller points to the rigorous testing that has happened this time around – which involved stressing the keyboard and finding its failure points, in an attempt to ensure that they could be avoided this time around.

"One of the great things is when you go through these programmes you come out the other side smarter, more capable; with new tools we've developed, new models that you can simulate any future product on; with new testing to figure out failure modes," he says. "And all of those things become part of the learning you use going forward on everything."

The new keyboard also has the advantage of not being quite so innovative. It is actually based on the well-known Magic Keyboard that ships with Macs and was released four years ago. Apple took the design of those keys – which have not seen any of the same complaints about reliability – and iterated them through testing, squishing them down into a laptop and improving on the feel and response.

(There is no way to test for certain that the new design fixes the problems, of course: the keys on the old MacBook Pro felt good too, until they didn't. But in early use the new keyboard feels robust and reliable, and it really does have the satisfying click of the Magic Keyboard.)

Apple has responded to other concerns about the old laptops, too. The company listened to complaints about the thermal throttling on the revised machines – some people found they quickly got too hot and slowed down – and has redesigned the architecture of the laptop so that it can better throw out heat while operating at its highest level.

One thing that made the old keyboard and other issues so particularly frustrating is that Apple was largely quiet about the problem – it did not acknowledge it, initially, and even once it had it was not clear how big an issue it was, or whether a fix was coming. Schiller says that Apple listens during such problems, even if it is not able to publicly say so.

"The biggest reason, as you see with this, is it just takes a long time to come out the other end of the input," he says. "In the meantime you can't say, 'Oh you're right, four years from now we'll do x because you asked us to. You can't.

"There is this time delay between this input and the vision and reality that we deliver. Sometimes we goes right and we're right there ahead of time anticipating things. But sometimes the feedback takes a while to work through the system."

Apple may have dispelled the fears about its hardware, about whether it still cares about professionals and whether professionals can still rely on it. But in recent months it seems that another worry has threatened to take that place: software.

Users in a variety of different fields have complained about problems with the latest release of the iPhone and Mac operating systems. Apple has responded with a series of bug-killing updates that have flowed faster than ever before, but it has led to questions about why those bugs are slipping through into the software in the first place.

"I think that we're only – what – 60 to 90 days into MacOS Catalina," he says. "We're very early in its lifecycle."

Instead he focuses on the variety of new updates that have arrived with the new software, many of them focused on professionals. "It's brought in a lot of innovative features we think are going to matter to all of us – a lot of important technology."

Schiller points to the recent introduction of dark mode, and to the addition of the Catalyst technology that allows developers to bring their iPad apps to the Mac far more easily than ever before. And he also references Apple's ability to combine hardware and software into one package, which has helped power the computers that have allowed Apple to shed doubts over its commitment to pro hardware.

"The world thinks of hardware and software as these separate things. And for much to the world – whether Windows or Android – it is that way. But at Apple it isn't. This is one product: the things we make."

It wouldn't have been possible to stick the new MacBook Pro's thermal architecture, vastly improved CPUs, discrete graphics chips and new display together without the software that powered it, he says.

"It came from that hardware and software integration, to enable seamless experience across all these things. That is unbelievably powerful, and if it weren't for the strength of Mac OS we wouldn't be doing these things.

"Yeah, we're going through some updates and feature things to make it the best it can be," he says. "But in the grand scheme of things it's still well-loved and feature-rich for the kind of work they want to get done."

Amid all of this talk of feedback, there is surely a worry that Apple could lose the capacity for brave and occasionally divisive product decisions on which it built its name. Throughout its history Apple has prided on its willingness to take bold decisions, with the aim of creating devices and features that customers didn't even know they wanted.

"First of all you have to have bold visions and ideas. And you have to have opinions and thoughts about where you want to go and where you want to take things," says Schiller.

"But then you also have to be self-aware enough to listen, too. To not think with your blinders on and believe that you're always right.

"And so you can be both. These things are not always in conflict with each other."

Schiller says that distinguishing between the two is a question of approach.

"What we always say is that customers can't tell us what to do," he says. "It's not their job – they don't know what technology will exist three years from now, they don't know the tradeoffs of size, and weight, and cost, and durability and feel.

"But they can tell us what they think. So we don't ask customers what to make – that's our job.

"We ask them what they think. A lot."

He points to the new MacBook Pro as the result of that process.

"I think that's true of this," he says, pointing to the glowing device sitting on the table. "We had a bold vision, a lot of work, but we also listened and asked customers why they think. All of those things are part of the development process of how we make things at Apple."

The new MacBook Pro sitting in front of Schiller was not introduced in one of the company's famous, loud presentations, all razzmatazz and sci-fi videos. Instead, it showed it at a closed event in New York, showing journalists how the computer would be used by professionals and the various specific work that it was built for.

Many of the developments came as part of Apple's new focus on its pro workflow team, and this is the first computer to be released as a result of that work, which saw Apple hire professionals to sit alongside its engineers and describe the way a computer needed to work for them to work. So it brought in video editors to be clear about what they would want: asking for specific benchmarks of performance that allowed Apple to engineer the computer for the way people would use it.

It's changed how Apple talks about its computers. "Even the way you describe it is different to the past," he says. "In the past, we'd have said, 'hey we want to maximise video playback performance, how [video editing software] Final Cut Pro, Premiere, these products run. But to say specifically we want to make sure you can play four 4K streams at 30 frames per second – that's a specific goal that we would probably not have been that exact about in the past."

It was yet another way that Apple responded to comments and complaints about its failing to serve the professional market. Schiller says there's not just "one thing" that has changed in Apple's approach to that market, but it has certainly adopted a new approach in recent times.

"Certainly over the last two to four years there was a little criticism over our delivery of products for pros," he says, comparing it with the years before. "These things happen in waves and there have been other times where that happened.

"But since our desire hadn't changed at all, to hear that criticism is a little painful. People care deeply about these products and meeting our customers needs. It's a great thing to be challenged and pushed, especially with a customer set that you care deeply about.

"And so the team did do soul searching and say, 'OK, what more can we do? We're doing as much as we ever did, so what more can we do? How else can we demonstrate how much we care about this market? What else can make a difference, in not doing the same thing over and over again – because clearly not everyones happy with doing it the same way we did it five years ago, ten years ago.

"And I think that's sot of part of it. It wasn't that apple changed how we approached the market. I think the world changed and said, 'Apple, the way you have been doing it all along doesn't impress us as much anymore. What more can you do?'"

All of that work for professionals falls down into the non-pro market, too. As well as people buying MacBook Pros simply because they are the best of Apple's computers, even if they are not necessarily using them for work, the techniques and methodology helps inform other products. "A MacBook Air may not have the exact same goals and uses cases of a MacBook Pro, and so on, but still the way we do thermal modelling and testing of features influences how we do things. Every product at Apple – you can find connections between iPhone, and iPad, and Watch and Mac that all feed off each other."

There's no question that Apple wants the "Pro" in MacBook Pro to stand for professional: this is a computer aimed at people who rely on their devices for heavy work. But the word has become stretched a little, particularly in recent months. Apple has released both the iPhone 11 Pro and the AirPods Pro, neither of which are in the same kind of chunky, professional market. In that context, what does it even mean for an Apple device to be capital-P Pro nowadays?

"From the very first time we used the word pro in our products, which began with Mac, it's always had a dual meaning," says Schiller.

"It's meant first a product that's built for professionals that count on it to get their job done. That's absolutely part of the name.

"But it also meant an aspirational product that – if somebody wants just to the very best thing, even if they'r not professionals and it's not how they do their work, but they still want that quality of product – they can count on it as well.

"That will be true of this. The 16-inch MacBook Pro will have many pro users who use it for video editing and music production and coding. But you'll have a lot of business people who'll choose it as well, or even consumers who want the highest and best thing and it fits what they want.

"So the word has had that dual meaning. We've not tried to change that. We think that duality works across our product lines.

"So it usually means some mix of: you can count on it to get your work done, or it's the very best part of the product line. And the degrees of which it means isn't that important."

There are even an awful lot of Apple computers with pro in their name: the iMac Pro, the Mac Pro, and now the new MacBook Pro, all of which have been announced in the last couple of years. There might be more diversity now that you can choose your high-end Mac in whatever shape you like, but there is also increased complexity – how do all of those various computers sit alongside each other?

The different machines "clearly compliment" each other, says Schiller. "They don't compete in any regard."

The laptops are the "predominant part" of the Mac business and Apple has been focused on notebooks for longer than most other computer manufacturers, he says. "We're really proud seeing that vision and trying to support it with as much performance as possible in things that still have really good battery life and are thin and light enough to carry around," he says. "We've always wanted to push that envelope of performance you can take with you and that works just as seamlessly as your primary desktop."

But in recent years Apple started to wonder about whether it could offer new kinds of approach to the pro market, and whether it should be offering different kinds of products.

"We had the same kind of conversations everyone does about, well should we push the iMac to be the pro product, should we make a new Mac Pro, should we make the MacBook Pro be the highest-end thing we do? One could have argued any one of those three was the smartest, best thing to do – you can't do everything.

"Well in this case we decided to do all three of those things, and not worry about which one somebody wants more than another. It's OK.

"As long as we're making things that our customers love, it's OK to overextend ourselves a bit and say there's an iMac Pro, there's a Mac Pro, there's a MacBook Pro. You choose whichever one fits what you want.

"Each one is capable of different things and different experiences, but they're all a Mac. And that kind of breadth of performance and consistency of experience is unmatched. There's nothing else like that."

Where do all of those various Macs sit in Apple's line-up? Apple has repeatedly stressed that its iPad can be used for high-end, professional tasks, too, and the addition of the "Pro" moniker to the iPhone 11 is a reminder that for many people it is people's primary work device, too. Is there a danger that the Mac loses its clear place as Apple's other products become more and more powerful?

"We've kind of kept to the same simple, clear vision that w'eve had for more than a decade now as we've had all these products," he says. "The Mac remains our vision for what is the best way to do personal computing."

Personal computing still starts "with a keyboard and mouse or trackpad" and so the Mac remains its home, Schiller says. "You can do other things, look at other things, add a pencil via an iPad with sidecar, but at the end of the day it was really built to be a keyboard or mouse experience." Those users who stick with the Mac want it to stay that way, he says.

The iPad on the other hand "exists because it create a new kind of need, not in competition with those other things but distinct from them. And it's best at some things".

He points to the opposite strategy taken by companies like Microsoft, which has not kept the various different platforms separate but instead squished them together, creating laptops on which you can touch the screen and tablets that can snap down into a laptop form factor. "We think that's compromise; that makes it suboptimal at either. That isn't what we want to do," Schiller says.

Choosing between the variety of devices is really just a "personal choice; you don't have to pick one, you just choose where you want to use it and how you want to use it". To make that work, Apple says it has instead focused on bringing the various different platforms together. The latest version of Mac OS includes the ability to use your iPad as an external display for your computer, for instance. "What we're trying to do is keep each true to what they are, yet make them work together if you have them."

With that clear division seems to have come a new vision: a flurry of entirely new Macs, and a mostly aggressive schedule of updating the older designs too. But Schiller says it never let up in trying to attain that goal, and what has really changed is the way it delivers on it.

"I think our vision for that has never changed," he says. "I think what you're seeing is an acceleration in the delivery of more performance and capabilities. I think the team has been on a tear the last year and a half delivering a lot of great Mac products."

He points out the variety of new devices that have dropped over the last year or two, not all of which have been focused on the professional. Last year it introduced the new version of the MacBook Air with a touch bar, which Schiller says "customers were dying for us to do", and the Mac Mini has received a major design overhaul and speed bump.

But Apple has had this kind of flurry of new products before. In 2013, it introduced the computer lovingly known as the "trashcan" Mac Pro, complete with bravado about how it proved the company was still able to innovate. It came amid similar questions about whether the company had focused instead on flashier and more profitable products like the iPhone had stolen its attention. But the computer seemed to serve as a statement of the fact that Apple still cared about both Macs and the pros that used them.

Then the updates stopped. The trashcan did not get refreshed or replaced, languishing without attention for years. Apple was silent and then admitted that it had "painted itself into a thermal corner" with the innovative design, and that the slick, curved tub was unable to properly cool the fast components that professionals wanted them to add to it. It promised it would fix the problem.

Now it has, not just replacing the Mac Pro but adding a variety of other equally powerhouse machines focused on the highest-end. But given that history, how can Apple assure users that this is not just a brief frenzy of attention but a really meaningful new commitment? What can Schiller say to those who worry they are catching a cresting wave that is about to crash?

"We love putting out good products. It's what we love doing," he says. "We're completely in line with customers, with what they want us to keep doing.

"They want us to innovate. They want us to make great products. They want the product lines to make sense. And we feel the exact same way.

"Sometimes technology just hits you for a span where things can't come out as frequently as you want, but that's not by design always. And so hopefully we don't hit those lulls again.

"Certainly the team has grown – I think we've got more resources on the Mac now that for a long time. So we're certainly tooled up and there to do great work for quite a long time.

"At the very least, while we don't talk about the future of where we're going, we're really clear to our Mac customers that we believe in it, and that we're going full steam ahead, and we're going to keep delivering great products. And we're going to work hard to do that."

If Apple doesn't, it wants you to keep complaining, keep feeding back, keep exercising the power that Schiller is keen you have.

"The most important thing to influence any company, and this isn't just an Apple thing, is just that there are a lot of people that care about it and want you to do more. That is so powerful. Customers have an incredible amount of sway in all that."

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