Long live the black box! How ThinkPads have thrived for 25 years

thinkpad
When technology analyst and columnist Tim Bajarin sat down with Steve Jobs just after his return to Apple, Tim asked a straightforward but important question. How would Jobs turn the company around? The answer was, at the time, surprising. Steve Jobs wanted to focus on industrial design.

Today, twenty years after that conversation, that answer seems obvious. In 1997, it was radical. Most computers – including those built by Apple – were simple beige boxes, vessels for the hardware they delivered. A year after his return, Apple introduced the iMac, the first of several devices that re-forged its computing business.

“IBM was already way ahead of him at that point. They already had thought industrial design was critical.”

Yet, as Bajarin later realized, Jobs’ vision was not unique. In fact, another company had beat him to the punch, and had been building laptops with visionary design for years — IBM. “If you think about it historically,” Bajarin said, “IBM was already way ahead of him at that point. They already had thought industrial design was critical.”

The original ThinkPad 700C, released in 1992, began a dynasty that’s now 25 years old. Simple, black, and boxy, ThinkPad’s consistent commitment to function and durability has earned a reputation envied by every other company in the PC business. Digital Trends flew to Japan for the 25th anniversary celebration of the brand, which gave us a chance to tour ThinkPad’s Yamato Labs and ask executives about the brand’s history – and its plans for the future.

The first modern laptop

Arimasa Naitoh, who is often called the father of the ThinkPad, — and wrote a book on its evolution –found himself assigned to IBM’s New York office early in his career. While there, he ran into a manager with an unusual habit. “My boss was commuting by train,” Naitoh recalled. “What he did was to ask his secretary to print all the emails he received that day, and he took those emails on the train, and wrote his responses. The next day, he handed them back over to his secretary.”

Naitoh didn’t realize the significance of the story at first, but later, as he found himself working on prototypes for what would become the ThinkPad, his email-toting boss sparked an epiphany. “He wanted to work more, work longer,” Naitoh realized, “but there was no way to work effectively after he left the office.” Why not build a computer that could do anything you’d do at the office – but do it from home, a hotel, or even a train?

lenovo thinkpad 700c 1992 newspaper ad

That computer was the ThinkPad 700C. Featuring a 9.5-inch LCD screen, a 25MHz processor, and a 120MB standard hard drive, it wasn’t the first laptop ever made. Compaq, Toshiba, and even IBM began building small, portable PCs in the late 1980s, which themselves were predated by “luggables” the size of a large suitcase. Those early laptops were often heavy, and lacked many conveniences desktops commonly offered – like a color screen, an integrated pointed device, and Windows compatibility. Early laptops were computers, to be sure, but using them wasn’t at all like using the desktop back at the office.

ThinkPad changed that. It was designed from the start to make portable the features of any other PC from its era, and to do it in a simple, functional, durable design. The original 700C, though bulky and heavy by modern standards, is still easily recognizable as a laptop. Its proportions and features are similar to ThinkPads built and sold in 2017.

Nowhere is its lasting influence more evident than the TrackPoint, the tiny red nub found in the center of every ThinkPad’s keyboards. TrackPoint wasn’t the first attempt at adding cursor support to a laptop, but it was the only attempt that become an enduring concept. “That particular piece of technology was really critical,” Bajarin explained. “That little red dot was a major change in the concept of bringing a mouse to a portable experience.” The only competitors to attempt anything similar, such as Apple’s PowerBook 100, used trackballs, a design that provided far less precision.

Today, many ThinkPad fans still swear by TrackPoint – but you won’t find many Mac owners begging for the ball’s return.

Think Next

The ThinkPad 700C and its siblings, the 700 and 300, were a hit. Reviewers instantly fell in love with the tough, portable machines. And the public took notice. “IBM could not make them fast enough,” David Hill, ThinkPad Vice President and Chief Design Officer, told Digital Trends. “They had to make additional factories and assembly lines to produce them.”

“Without people that have the talent, and understand what people’s problems are, and solve them, you will have no products.”

Design was at the heart of this success, according to Hill. While laptops were already known as a tool for executives and other organization leaders who needed to work on the go, most people saw them as only that – a tool. ThinkPad was desired. “It looked cooled,” Hill explained. “All the computers of the time were sort of uninteresting, unimaginative. [The ThinkPad] was kind of a unique black box, kind of mysterious.”

That didn’t bind the ThinkPad team into a straightjacket of its own making, however. Its engineers set out to explore new ideas, to find what works. The success of the 700C built a new brand, and proved there was massive interest in portable computers outside the world of high-paid executives and frequent fliers. An era of fast-paced innovation followed. Often this experimentation led to classic designs, like the ThinkPad 701C’s folding “butterfly keyboard” and the ThinkLight, which let owners work late into the night before backlit keyboards were a thing. But not all experiments were successful.

“There was all this brainstorming about, what’re we going to do next?” Hill remembered. “It was an experimentation bed, where you could invent new things.” Naturally, some of those ideas went wrong, or introduced innovations that, as it turned out, no one wanted. “There’s some clankers out there,” Hill said, remembering the 755CDV, a ThinkPad with a fully transparent display designed for use with projectors of the era. The company also built the 550BJ, which had a built-in printer in the bottom of the laptop, and the Transnote, an innovative yet strange device that could transfer notes written on real paper, with real ink, to the PC.

lenovo thinkpad retro logo

These misfires were as much a part of ThinkPad’s growth as the successes. “We create a culture of innovation,” Luis Hernandez, Vice President at ThinkPad, agreed. “Without people that have the talent, and understand what people’s problems are, and solve them, you will have no products.” It’s easy, after 25 years, to look back at the failures and wonder – what were they thinking? Yet without those experiments, ThinkPad wouldn’t have been first to adopt new ideas like an integrated disc drive, swappable drive bays, and fingerprint authentication.

Eventually, though, the ThinkPad brand did begin to settle down, and the company looked for a way to clarify its expanded library of laptops which, at the time, were (mostly) named only with a model number. The shift to a family of products designated by series – X-Series, T-Series, E-Series, and so on — took place at the turn of the century, and it laid the foundation for the ThinkPads that are recognizable today. “We needed to have a strategy that divided these things in a meaningful way,” Hill told Digital Trends. “That’s the little one. That’s the big one.”

IBM ends one era, Lenovo begins another

Shifting ThinkPad to distinctive series made its laptops even more memorable, and fans quickly picked favorites. While some preferred the pleasantly mid-sized T-Series, others insisted on the featherweight X-Series, and still others felt only the power of the P-Series would do. ThinkPad loyalists had an identity to latch onto, while those outside the fan club were finally able to navigate IBM’s line-up without the help of a chart.

Yet not all was well. ThinkPad sprung up in the waning days of IBM’s involvement in the PC business. It was, by then, already diminished compared to the 1980s, when IBM-compatible PCs were the gold standard. The success of new computers running Microsoft Windows and powered by Intel processors put the final nails in the coffin of IBM-compatibles. Seeing that shift, the company decided to move away from building products, which often operated on tight profit margins. Instead, IBM would focus on the new demand for high-tech services.

ThinkPad didn’t fit into that plan. It had to go.

Samuel Palmisano, then CEO of IBM, received interest from Dell and a number of private equity firms, but brushed them aside in favor of a more unusual suitor. Lenovo, originally founded as Legend in 1984, was not a complete stranger to the PC business: It sold devices under several brands across the globe. Yet it was certainly a small player – the ninth largest by volume in 2004 – and almost completely unknown in North America.

The company’s Chinese origins didn’t help matters. The New York Times reported the Pentagon was examining the proposed sale as a national security risk. Some fans took up that concern, while others wondered how a relatively small foreign company could possibly do the brand justice. Analysts were skeptical, too.

“I don’t look at the heritage as something that’s holding us back”

“When I got word that Lenovo was going to buy the IBM PC business, I have to tell you I was not exactly delighted,” said Bajarin. “Like a lot of analysts, I was quite skeptical […] The idea of another company taking IBM’s business and making it successful was highly questionable.”

In 2005, the acquisition went through. None of the forecasted doom occurred. Lenovo, as it turned out, understood what it was buying. The company wanted to know how to build great laptops, and relied on its newly purchased division for that knowledge. Today, Lenovo trades blows with HP for the title of world’s largest PC manufacturer, and it maintains a larger selection of ThinkPad products than was ever possible under IBM.

“The ability to integrate a business the way [Lenovo] did is now a case study, because it’s the most successful integration of any business we’ve seen from an outside company.” Bajarin praised Lenovo: “I thought they were going to completely change the way they do business. They didn’t.”

Looking forward, but remembering the past

Lenovo’s massive growth has helped ThinkPad expand while competitors like Toshiba, once a ThinkPad rival, have struggled to keep customers in the shrinking PC space.

That doesn’t mean ThinkPad is safe, however, or plans to play it safe. PCs are not as popular as they once were, while many people – and companies – looking at new PCs want one with a touchscreen, for use as either a tablet or laptop.

lenovo thinkpad x1

At a glance, that sounds like bad news for a laptop line made legendary by robust yet boxy design, but Lenovo doesn’t plan to let ThinkPad languish as computers evolve. Yoga, Lenovo’s line of 2-in-1 laptops that offer a 360-degree hinge, offer proof of that. “That concept was actually started in the Lenovo team,” said Luis Hernandez. “Working together […] allowed us to come up with [a Yoga product.]” Today, the ThinkPad X1 Yoga is arguably ThinkPad’s flagship PC.

PC 2-in-1s and tablets aren’t the only area ThinkPad might innovate in the future. The brand is constantly considering what might work, though it also maintains a high standard for what’s worthy of the name. “A ThinkPad phone … we have debated this question for years,” said Jerry Paradise, Executive Director, at the ThinkPad anniversary event. “We a have a box full of design models,” Hill agreed. The idea never came to fruition, however, because ThinkPad’s engineers couldn’t find a compelling way to make it work. Of course, Lenovo now has its own phone brand in Motorola, which builds the “unbreakable” Moto X Force and the modular Moto Z.

“I don’t look at the heritage as something that’s holding us back,” said Brian Leonard, Lenovo’s Vice President of Design. “I look at it as something that helps us move forward and take chances on new things, instead of trying to reinvent who we are, what we are.”

Hill agreed. “To me, ThinkPad is not just a laptop. It’s a belief system, an idea. It has meaning beyond just a keyboard and a screen. […] If for some crazy reason no one ever bought laptops again, ideally, the ThinkPad brand would live on beyond that.” It’s hard to predict what the next trend will be years in advance, but ThinkPad doesn’t think it needs to. Instead, the computer makers can rely on its strong design to guide it. Whatever a computer looks like 25 years from now, at least some people will want it to be simple, functional, and durable.

They’ll want a ThinkPad.

If you’re a ThinkPad fan, don’t forget to check out the ThinkPad 25th Anniversary Edition, now available for $1,900.

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