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The sleek and powerful black laptop computer became a staple of business productivity and a must-have status symbol
ThinkPad 700C (256-color screen) 1992

Introduced in 1992, the ThinkPad marked a turning point for both the image of IBM and the prospects of mobile computing. With a simple design evocative of a black cigar box, a signature cursor pointing device, a vivid display and unprecedented processing power, the ThinkPad won favor among a rapidly expanding market of business travelers and became the world’s most iconic notebook computer.

IBM had been producing portable devices since the 1970s, yet for nearly two decades the company failed to achieve much success in the marketplace, partly due to its focus on desktop machines. Meanwhile, in the mid-’80s, an internal task force projected that laptops would outsell desktops by 1996. So in 1992, as part of the drive by CEO John Akers to create a more nimble company, IBM established a business unit called the Personal Computer Company, with Robert J. Corrigan as its president. Each division received its own development, manufacturing and marketing teams to accelerate production and create more competitively priced offerings.

The ThinkPad line — its name inspired by the “THINK”-adorned paper notepads distributed to countless employees and customers for jotting down ideas — emerged from the mobile computing division and made its public debut with three models at the Comdex trade show in November of that year. The top-of-the-line 700C featured a stylish matte-black, rubberized-paint exterior, a large (for the time) 10.4-inch active-matrix, thin-film transistor (TFT) display, and a red rubber nub nestled amid the keys.

Known as the TrackPoint II, the nub allowed users to control the cursor without lifting their hands from the keyboard. IBM computer scientist Ted Selker conceived of the device, which responded to pressure rather than motion, to increase the efficiency of navigating and typing while taking up as little space as possible. It was a love it-or-hate-it feature. Some questioned its efficacy. For others, it fostered a unique human-to-machine connection. And there were more than enough of the latter to make it a success in the marketplace. As The Washington Post reported: “Ted Selker’s work building a better computer mouse gave new life to IBM’s moribund laptop computer business.”

Ted Selker’s work building a better computer mouse gave new life to IBM’s moribund laptop computer business The Washington Post
Japanese influence
Making everything smaller

Credit for IBM’s transition from a laggard to a leader in mobile computing goes largely to Japanese engineer Arimasa Naitoh. In 15 years at the company, he had built a reputation for being a problem-solver. In 1989, the company turned to him to quickly develop a laptop for the Harvard Business School. Naitoh hardly slept or saw his family for months as he coordinated far-flung teams in Japan, Scotland and across the US. Ultimately, he led the engineering of IBM’s first battery-powered notebook computer, the Laptop 40 SX. 

The L40/SX proved that it was possible to create a 12-by-2-by-10-inch computer that was far better than the 35-pound “luggables” Harvard’s students had been rolling around on carts. But it was hardly sexy, so IBM withheld marketing support. Executives recognized its potential, however, and charged Naitoh with creating a lighter, smaller and more powerful version.

He gathered a team in IBM’s Yamato Development Lab in Japan that included engineer Ken Yonemochi, portable systems director Koichi Higuchi and project manager Toshiyuki Ikeda. Together they conceived a next-generation model complete with the TrackPoint, Microsoft Windows 3.1, and a modified Intel 486 processor that IBM produced in its own factory. The location and culture of the Yamato lab proved critical during the development process. “Nearly every part of a portable computer would have to be made smaller than it was in a desktop,” Naitoh recalled, “and making things smaller is a deep part of our culture [in Japan].”

As globalization took off in the 1990s, laptop computers greatly boosted productivity by enabling salespeople and executives to work from anywhere. The ThinkPad was designed with tight spaces in mind. The 7.6-pound box featured a front-loading floppy drive (no knocking your neighbor’s elbows while on a plane), a removable hard drive, nearly four hours of battery life and a data/fax modem.

Nearly every part of a portable computer would have to be made smaller than it was in a desktop, and making things smaller is a deep part of our culture [in Japan] Arimasa Naitoh Engineer with IBM Research and team lead for the L40/SX
The whole package
Speed, beauty, practicality and grace

The ThinkPad’s highly engineered innards — neatly segmented along the lines of a bento box, according to design chief David Hill — required an equally inspired exterior. IBM designers Tom Hardy and Kazuhiko Yamazaki met with influential German designer Richard Sapper, who had joined IBM as a consultant in 1980, to focus on the ThinkPad’s aesthetics.

Sapper immediately vetoed the “hideous beige” that ruled the computing landscape, opting for all black. “I wanted to make an object that looked like a black cigar box that on the outside shows nothing of what it is,” Sapper recalled. “Then, when you open it … that would create a surprise.” Sapper wanted the TrackPoint to be red but faced pushback because it was the color of the emergency “off” button on IBM mainframes.

He created IBM Magenta for the launch but edged closer to red with each update. With a color display, the ThinkPad 700C sold for USD 4,350 — pricey but still 15 percent below its leading competition, the Toshiba 4400 laptop. In 1993, PC Computing magazine 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.”

Within two months of launch, IBM had received 100,000 orders — and a slew of awards. The ThinkPad became a status symbol in both the C-suite and IT departments, selling more than USD 1 billion worth in its first year. It also supercharged IBM’s PC business, which grew from USD 120 million a year to USD 3 billion within two years.

A clear standout by its combination of speed, beauty, hard-nosed practicality and, yes, grace PC Computing magazine
Cultural impact and legacy
ThinkPad lives on

IBM would launch dozens of ThinkPad models over the next 13 years, including more-affordable versions for small businesses and students. The company incorporated new technologies as they became available, including a CD-ROM, an optical drive, multimedia ports, Wi-Fi antennas and an accelerometer that protected the hard drive in the event of a drop.

One of the most celebrated designs was unveiled and discontinued in the same year. The 701C, nicknamed the Butterfly, fit a full-size keyboard within the footprint of a 10.4-inch-diagonal screen. IBM mechanical engineer John Karidis pulled off this feat by crafting a keyboard out of two triangular pieces. Each would flare out beyond the machine’s perimeter when it was opened, and contract when closed. The Butterfly was plagued by production delays, and by the time it came out, notebook screens were already large enough to accommodate a full-size keyboard. The 701C lives on, however, as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, which celebrates the best in industrial design.

IBM aggressively marketed the ThinkPad over the years, focusing as much on its looks as its durability and reliability. The company promoted its utility in tight spaces and even loaned a machine to archaeologists in Egypt to prove how well it performed in extreme conditions. Multiple ThinkPads traveled to space beginning in 1993, proving invaluable to NASA for research and repairs for years to come.

The ThinkPad became the world’s top-selling notebook computer by 2000. But the market would shift yet again, partly in response to the recession that hit in 2001, and IBM made a strategic move toward software and services. The company sold its PC division in 2005 for USD 1.75 billion to Lenovo, where the ThinkPad continues to thrive under the guidance of a team of designers, engineers and marketers, many of whom moved from IBM with the brand.

Sales of the transformative notebook have surpassed 150 million units since its debut, transcending shifts in the economy, market dynamics and technologies. Chalk the ThinkPad’s staying power to a timeless design, persistent utility and reliability. Credit must also go to the legions of faithful followers who, according to Peter Hortensius, an executive at both IBM and Lenovo, recognized the ThinkPad as “not so much an object as a belief system.”


Not so much an object as a belief system Peter Hortensius Executive at IBM and Lenovo
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