Apple Might Make Future MacBook Keyboards Out of Glass, and I’m Concerned

Photo: Apple
Photo: Apple

When I saw that Apple recently filed a patent application for transparent keycaps made of glass, possibly for use in future Bluetooth desktop or MacBook keyboards, I was intrigued. This could be Apple’s solution to making a longer-lasting and more reliable keyboard, something the company has struggled with over the years.

In its filing, spotted by Apple Insider, Apple noted that keyboards are designed so that a person can “physically engage the selected material several hundreds of thousands of times, if not millions of times, over the life of a device. Many visually pleasing solutions lack the durability for such extended function.”

“This can be especially true when electronic devices and/or associated input devices are made smaller, thinner, or otherwise reduced in dimension,” the application continues. “Reduced dimensions of keycaps, for example, can lead to keycaps that are less structurally sound and have a shorter lifetime than thicker keycaps made of the same material.”

But there’s one major problem with using glass to make keycaps: Imagine the keys breaking underneath your fingertips, smearing your keyboard with enough blood to be its own crime scene. (No? Just me?)

Based on the patent application alone, it’s unclear what kind of glass Apple would use in its transparent keyboard, or if the company would use a different kind of glass for a Bluetooth Magic Keyboard versus a MacBook one. There are three main types of glass that Apple might choose from:

  • Annealed glass is glass that has been thermally treated and then slowly cooled to relieve any internal stresses. It’s a soft glass, meaning that it breaks easily, and when it breaks, it cracks into long, jagged shards. No one is going to smash their glass keyboard against their desk in a fit of rage when they die in an Unreal Tournament or crash their fist through their keyboard, I would hope, but take it from me: I once accidentally broke a test tube made of this glass in my hand during 7th grade science glass, and there was a lot of blood. A MacBook’s keycaps are 1.5mm in thickness. The test tube that stabbed my hand? About 1.2mm thick.
  • Tempered glass is annealed glass that has been heat-treated, which makes it harder, stronger, and more expensive. A lot of modern PC cases come with a tempered glass side panel, which makes it easy to see all those sweet, sweet RGB components. But it will shatter into a ton of tiny pieces if you drop it, unlike how annealed glass breaks. (I may or may not have had or order a replacement side panel for my PC case in the past.)
  • Laminated glass is a type of safety glass made by adhering two pieces of annealed glass together with vinyl. If the glass is broken, the vinyl holds it together, but it’s not scratch resistant. I doubt Apple would use this kind of glass for that reason, but it’s much safer than first two.

But I can’t see any of these types of glass being used. Never mind how much any of these glass materials would drive up the cost of Mac desktops and laptops, the risk of personal injury and breakage is too high. Keycaps are plastic for a reason: It’s much harder to break.

Now, Apple does use strengthened glass on the iPhone, so it may decide to use that for its keycaps. Corning’s Gorilla Glass is annealed glass that has been chemically treated to increase its strength, which makes it about six to eight times stronger than regular annealed glass. But anyone who has ever dropped their iPhone only to have the screen shatter knows it’s not indestructible. Gorilla Glass is not a safety glass, either, and can break off in shards like annealed glass, so may the Apple gods (or AppleCare+) help you if you drop a laptop with Gorilla Glass keycaps.

Another important thing to note about Gorilla Glass’ strengthening process is that it’s not heat-treated like tempered glass, so it can’t be warped. According to Apple’s patent, the company wants to “define a top surface that provides key definition by curvature, texture, ridges, or other external structural features” for its keycaps, which could rule out Gorilla Glass.

However, according to the patent Apple filed, the company is looking into making the keycaps out of glass or a “transparent polymer material,” which includes acrylics, resin, and other plastics. That could mean Apple is really looking into making transparent keycaps, whatever the material. Its patent application is titled “Transparent Keycaps,” and given what we know about the three main types of glass, I highly doubt Apple would ever produce transparent glass keycaps to scale in the future. They could do a few one-offs, like XPG did with its gold-plated keyboard at CES 2019, though that cost $US10,000 ($14,336) (but given Apple’s propensity for overcharging for its products, its all-glass keyboard would probably cost that much, too).

But if Apple produces a keyboard with transparent keycaps, we can (finally) welcome the company to the wonderful world of custom PC keyboard keycaps, where many independent artists have been showing their skills for years. A simple Etsy search shows beautiful, clear resin caps with cherry blossoms, mountains, and even Pokemon inside them. And when you pair them with an RGB keyboard, it makes them that much cooler. Apple isn’t inventing anything new here. Inventing something new for their Mac lineup so they potentially could prevent independent artists from making custom Mac keycaps? Sure. But, uh, transparent keycaps are already a thing.

It’s still cheaper to mass produce plastic ones, and if you’ve ever purchased a $US200 ($287) RGB gaming keyboard I’m sure you appreciate how cost-effective and long lasting plastic is. Also, Apple’s patent includes a process to include a “light-blocking material defining a glyph shape” in the keycaps, which means the glyph would be embedded into the key itself instead of printed on top. Again, welcome to the wonderful world of gaming keyboards, Apple. The Asus ROG Strix Flare that I’m typing on right now has the glyphs embedded into the keys — except with the way that part of the patent application is worded, it seems like the glyph itself would be the opaque part instead of allowing light to shine through. Either way, embedded glyphs have been and are still being done.

Glass keycaps do sound cool, but when you dig into the the main types of glass and their main characteristics — transparency, heat resistance, breakage resistance, etc. — they’re just not all that safe nor economically feasible. If the keys are low profile enough maybe they would, but again, I’m sceptical of Apple claiming that by changing the material of its keycaps it’s going to increase the longevity of its keyboards. It’s the key switches you have to worry about with keyboards, not the keycaps.

And on that note, well, at least Apple finally moved away from its godawful butterfly keyboards.