"It's like the Levi's 501 of personal computing."
In an effort to explain how the ThinkPad brand has sustained 20 years, a sale from IBM to Lenovo, and relentless competition from all sides, Lenovo design VP David Hill turned mostly to analogy. He likened the ThinkPad to jeans, Jeep, and the Porsche 911 — three things that have evolved over time without ever losing sight of their original statement or design. That's the idea behind the ThinkPad.
The ThinkPad line celebrates its 20th birthday today, and just as you probably still wear jeans and could draw a pretty accurate Jeep Wrangler if I asked you to, the ThinkPad has become the rare constant in the technology industry. Nearly everything around it has changed, but ThinkPad has always been the professional-grade black box. In honor of its anniversary, we look back at how the ThinkPad made it to 2012, and whether or not you'll still be using one in 2032.
"It was one of the first credible computers of that size."
Before Apple urged the world to "Think Different," IBM just wanted us to "Think." The word was so closely associated with the company that it had been printed on the company-issued notepads employees carried around. By 1992 IBM didn't make the pads anymore, but senior planner Denny Wainwright still carried one. While discussing names for the company's new pen-based tablet, he looked down at his notebook, then up at his colleagues, and said "let's call it the Think pad."
For a company obsessed with number-based product names — it made devices like the AT/370 and the XT 286 — the idea didn't go over well. It wouldn't translate into foreign languages, and, well, it didn't have enough numbers. But ThinkPad eventually stuck, for the tablet and later for laptops.
IBM took three ThinkPad models to Vegas in November of 1992 for the Comdex tradeshow, but the 700c quickly became the belle of the ball — the 5.7-pound device had a 10.4-inch TFT screen, offering display power and real estate basically unheard of in a portable computer. The $4,350 machine also had a removable hard drive, a front-loading floppy disk (so you can avoiding elbowing your seatmates on an airplane), and impressive horsepower for the time. PC Computing gave its annual "Most Valuable Product" award to the 700c, calling it "a clear standout by its combination of speed, beauty, hard-nosed practicality, and, yes, grace."
Everyone else seemed to agree. PC Magazine’s reviewer said it was "the best notebook I've ever used," and nearly every other review was equally smitten. But more importantly, the 700c was immediately in high demand. Bob O'Malley, then the managing director of IBM personal systems in Asia, told Electric Business Magazine's Peter Golden that "it had so much cachet that the tech people suddenly weren't making the buying decisions on notebooks. Now the CEOs were saying, 'I want one of those, nothing else.' The ThinkPad got IBM where they needed to go to expand all of their businesses — right inside the executive suite."
Peter Hortensius, President of the Product Group at Lenovo and an IBM researcher in 1992, says the 700c was so exciting because it finally did what users wanted. "It really nailed something ThinkPad has always tried to do, which is really solve user problems. A screen I can read on, a keyboard I can type on, a pointing device like the TrackPoint... it was one of the first credible computers of that size, and it drove a lot of excitement early on." Sales, market share, and IBM stock soared.
Thanks to the critical and commercial success of the 700c, ThinkPad became a powerful name almost immediately. And the hits kept coming: in 1994, the ThinkPad 755CD was the first laptop to have a CD-ROM drive built in. The next year, IBM released the 701c, which featured a "butterfly" keyboard that expanded to be wider than the laptop itself — the butterfly idea didn’t stick, but the 701c was so impressive that it’s now on display in the Museum of Modern Art. 1997 brought the first DVD-ROM inside a laptop, with ThinkPad 770. ThinkPad laptops have been the first to have integrated fingerprint readers, and the first with built-in wireless. ThinkPads were even one of the first laptops in space, along with the GRiD Compass.
Each new model, said Hortensius, got people riled up anew. "I still remember when they launched [the 700c] — and I wasn't a part of that team, I was sitting on the research side — and we were just amazed. 'What do you mean, they're selling this thing above list?' You know, people just HAD to get the thing, and were willing to pay whatever it took to get it. And it had that for the first few generations."
Of course, not all of the company's firsts were quite so significant. The very first ThinkPad was the pen-based 700t, a Newton-esque tablet / laptop hybrid intended for vertical markets like insurance companies, which didn't catch on and didn't stay on the market very long. In 2009, Lenovo released the ThinkPad W700s, which had a second screen that popped out of the right side of the device — that didn't exactly take the world by storm either. But even in the face of its flops, the team stays committed to trying new things. "We've taken some bold risks," Lenovo's VP of ThinkPad Dilip Bhatia said, "and they don't all pay off... and that's okay."
Even while it tried to be first, fastest, best and most beautiful, however, each new IBM computer was foremost a ThinkPad.
The Thinkpad essence
"It's the color of power. It's the color of death. It's the color of sex."
After 20 years and hundreds of models, the ThinkPad is a very different computer in 2012 than it was in 1992. None of Lenovo's current models cost $4,350 or weigh upward of seven pounds, and all come with considerably more than 120MB of storage or 25MHz of processing power. Today's models have bigger screens and thinner bodies, and features no one in 1992 even knew they were missing. But as David Hill puts it, "even if you were to type on an X1 Carbon today, and dig out from somewhere in your archives a 700c, if you put your fingers on it and closed your eyes there would be an element of familiarity."
That familiarity comes from Lenovo's relentless commitment to its definition of "ThinkPad", the few features and principles that define the lineup. But that hasn't always been the case. "In 1992, when the first ThinkPad was introduced, nobody said 'let's build a computer, and we won't ever change the design.' That was not part of the strategy," Hill said. "I can remember so many conversations along the way... where people wanted to throw away the design. But I thought the ThinkPad design essence was an idea that had longevity. It could evolve, it could adapt to change in a very meaningful way."
So what makes a ThinkPad? It begins with the idea of the computer as a "black box," a phrase IBM and Lenovo take quite literally. The ThinkPad design is famously inspired by a bento box — simple and practical, with a place for everything and everything in its place just like the Japanese serving dish. As for the color, to hear employees talk about it there's never going to be a ThinkPad that won't be black. "It's the color of power," said Hill. "It's the color of death. It's the color of sex. It's the color of so many different things. But it's also the color of ThinkPad, and over time it's served us well in terms of projecting an image of authority, and power, and sophistication."
The keyboard and typing experience are also key to the ThinkPad idea. Rather than flat and square chiclets, ThinkPad keys are concave, cradling the pad of your finger as you type — Hill described even the original ThinkPad 700c keyboard as "gourmet." Your mileage may vary, but Hill's pretty sure it's the right design. "If you have square fingers," he said, "type on a square keyboard. Otherwise type on a ThinkPad."
If there's one single feature that defines a ThinkPad, though, it's the TrackPoint — that red nub in the center of the keyboard that you either love or hate. In 1992, it was mostly love: it saved users from having to move their hands off the keyboard or use clunky trackballs, so with one finger you could navigate around the screen. Hill, for one, still loves the TrackPoint. "It's not so different from the first time I drove a car with a manual transmission," he said. "It's an acquired taste, but once you're hooked, you're hooked."
From IBM to Lenovo, the idea of evolutionary design defines the history of the ThinkPad — technology may change from model to model, but the overall impression of a ThinkPad has remained since 1992. In a world awash with redesigns and makeovers, of-the-moment colors and gizmos, the ThinkPad has stayed true to its original vision. Hortensius credits that to the core ThinkPad team, which has changed surprisingly little in the last two decades. "If you look at other PC brands, they're not really developed by a stable team. They quickly started outsourcing to Taiwan, and turnover their marketing team — there's no real staying power in the team. And one of the things that's special about ThinkPad is that when we do the recognition for the 20th anniversary, I'm going to be able to look around the room and say "hey, you were here when we started this." And I'm going to be able to say that throughout the organization."
Of course, there's a fine line between a brand-conscious approach and a failure to innovate, and the ThinkPad's history exists on both sides. As computers like the MacBook Air began to set the standard for keyboards, trackpads, and design flair, words like "boring," "plain-looking," and "commodity" started to appear describing ThinkPads. The devices were powerful, and still had their trademark black exteriors and red TrackPoints, but they'd lost their appeal in a time where computing power was no longer something to boast of and appeal was a differentiator. "If you look at the original ThinkPad, it was very simple," Hill recalled. "But a lot of that changed over time and became more complicated."
To find its way, Lenovo went back to the Yokohama, Japan-based design team that has worked on ThinkPads since their inception. They worked to create a better, simple, more refined ThinkPad in the X1 Carbon. The ultrathin laptop with the carbon-fiber body was released this summer, and is far more likely to be described as "sleek," "cool," even "exotic." It's the best proof in a long time that Lenovo's ThinkPad design can still be attractive, that the black box hasn't yet lost its appeal.
"It's not so different from the first time I drove a car with a manual transmission."
The next 20 years
Few brands share the ThinkPad's brand power or success, and next to none have sustained it over such a long period. Many of IBM's competitors in 1992 don't even make computers anymore, and those that do would be unrecognizable to a laptop owner then — Compaq, Toshiba, and every other competitive company from 1992 has either changed its approach entirely or given up trying. (It also seems unlikely that the Qosmio brand will be around 20 years from now.) Meanwhile Lenovo announced in 2010 that it had sold the 60 millionth ThinkPad, and the company continues to grow — it’s now the world’s second-largest PC vendor, and is rapidly gaining on HP.
But Lenovo now finds itself at a new inflection point in the market. If the past two decades were largely about perfecting the laptop as it became the centerpiece of our work and personal lives, the next 20 seem to be focused on tablets and smartphones as the hub of everything we do, the new market ripe for innovation and maturation. The way we purchase devices is changing, too, no longer dictated by IT departments but by consumers. ThinkPads have always been designed and promoted for serious people who do serious work, but the industry’s increasing consumer focus is upending how people see their devices.
The ThinkPad team has proven for two decades that it makes computers as well as anyone in the industry, but new form factors and use cases are quickly forcing companies to do more than just refine the black box. Can Lenovo adapt? Can the ThinkPad?
"People are starting to look at us and say 'well, I can do this on my smartphone!'"
Bhatia certainly thinks so. He points to the new ThinkPad Tablet 2, the Windows 8-powered convertible tablet the company announced this fall, as the first example of the next phase of ThinkPad. "When I talk to a number of customers, mobility is such a big element, and the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is clearly designed around mobility. It has everything you need that a mobile individual would require. I think tablets in general are here to stay, and we're going to take advantage of that."
The world is changing around the ThinkPad, and the next 20 years promise to shift the market even more than the last. Clamshell devices won't go away, says Hortensius, but other devices might become more important. "Consumer goods suddenly became smart and aware, and people are starting to look at us and say 'well, I can do this on my smartphone!' People say 'my computer's just not keeping up.'"
When those devices do take over, where does that leave the ThinkPad? I asked David Hill if we'd still use laptops in 2032, and said I didn't necessarily think so. "Who says a ThinkPad has to be a laptop computer?" he replied. "I think it can be many things, as long as it stays true to what ThinkPad stands for."
Hortensius couldn’t wait to agree. "There's a lot more innovation left in this industry."