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How IBM’s ThinkPad Became A Design Icon

Little about the PC industry of the early 1990s survives. But 25 years after it was first introduced–and after many technological shifts–a ThinkPad remains a ThinkPad.

In the tech industry, design consistency isn’t just undervalued; oftentimes, it’s an object of outright scorn. That’s why, for instance, Apple consistently gets grief for releasing new iPhones that aren’t radical departures from last year’s iPhones.

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So it’s certainly no shocker that rifling through a 25-year-old issue of PC Magazine provides dozens of pieces of evidence that the tastes of 1992 diverged wildly from those of 2017, in ways that go beyond the purely technological. The desktop and portable computers in its pages are beige and bulbous, bearing scant resemblance to their modern descendants.

A 1992 ad for one of the first ThinkPads. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]
But there is one exception in the magazine. It’s a striking black laptop called the IBM ThinkPad. More precisely, it’s the first ThinkPad laptop, the 700C, which was announced 25 years ago today, on October 5, 1992.

In 1992, critics and customers immediately identified the ThinkPad 700C as an important product. PC Magazine’s Matthew J. Ross called it “superb” as well as “bold and a great success” and concluded his review by proclaiming that “after years of designing undistinguished portables, IBM has finally gotten it right.” Magazines such as BusinessWeek and PC Computing gave the 700C awards; IBM claimed that the ThinkPad racked up more than 300 honors in its first few months. The company also issued a press release trumpeting 100,000 orders for ThinkPads (including the 700C and two lower-end models with monochrome screens) in eight weeks. “Before October, IBM was not a major player in mobile computing,” an IBM executive acknowledged in the release. “Now we are.”

What nobody knew at the time was that the ThinkPad name, design aesthetic, and emphasis on technological innovation in the service of reliable productivity would have such staying power. Any citizen of late 1992 who encountered a modern ThinkPad such as the X1 Carbon would likely be blown away by the machine’s thin-and-light form factor–less than a third the thickness and weight of the 700C–and high-resolution screen, and would certainly be confused by it carrying a Lenovo nameplate rather than that of IBM. (The Chinese manufacturer acquired IBM’s PC business in 2005.) But if that person was familiar with the ThinkPad 700C, identifying the X1 Carbon as a ThinkPad would be easy. You can’t say anything similar about a 1992 Apple PowerBook and a 2017 MacBook.

2016’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon, both thoroughly modern and clearly a ThinkPad. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]
If you’re looking for parallels to the longevity of the ThinkPad brand and signature design elements, you’re more likely to find them in the automotive industry than the PC business. “You can go look at a brand new Porsche 911 and compare it to the original, and okay, there’s a whole bunch of differences,” says David Hill, who served as design chief for the ThinkPad line for more than 20 years. “But it still has the same spirit and there are elements of it which are consistent.” That sort of “purposeful evolution,” he adds, is what the ThinkPad’s creators have always aimed for.

The original IBM PC, which spawned an industry and eventually led to the ThinkPad. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]

IBM’s Comeback Machine

Back in 1992, 11 years after it released its original personal computer, IBM was still one of the biggest names in the industry. But it had lost much of its influence and struggled to build computers that captured anyone’s imagination. Reviewing the PS/2 L40 SX, a 1991 IBM laptop, PC Magazine’s Mitt Jones wrote that it “fares somewhat poorly overall when compared with the best of its competition”—a take that pretty much summarized the company’s overall situation in the PC business.

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As IBM hatched plans for the ThinkPad, it aspired to build a laptop that showed off the company’s technological prowess and looked good while doing it. It was a global effort: Many of the technologies inside sprung from IBM labs in the U.S., but the ThinkPad was engineered at the company’s lab in Yamato, Japan, and its industrial design was by Richard Sapper, a German who worked out of a studio in Milan.

1986’s IBM PC Convertible was an early IBM portable–but far too big and bulky to qualify as a notebook. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]
Laptop computers had been around since the 1980s, but still felt like a product category that was in the process of finding itself–especially since Microsoft’s Windows, which didn’t catch on until the early 1990s, cried out for new features such as color screens and built-in pointing devices. “The notebook computer itself was a kind of unknown area,” says Arimasa Naitoh, who supervised the 700C’s engineering in Yamato and has never stopped creating new ThinkPad models. “We had a great business opportunity, but nobody was 100% confident.” (Naitoh tells the story of his 25-year association with the ThinkPad line in a new book, How the ThinkPad Changed the World–and is Shaping the Future.)

At the time, the PC market was being transformed by upstarts such as Dell and Gateway 2000, which commoditized PC-building by assembled other companies’ parts without adding much in the way of technical innovation of their own. IBM, by contrast, was still a vertically integrated manufacturer, a fact that the new machine showed off in multiple ways. The ThinkPad 700C didn’t just use an Intel 486 processor–it used an extra-powerful version that IBM customized and produced in its own factory, a decision that no other PC company could or would make. Thanks to a joint venture between IBM and Toshiba, it was also one of the earliest notebook computers with an active-matrix thin-film transistor (TFT) display, the first technology to provide really good color in portable form. Everyone was also dazzled by the screen’s size: At 10.4 inches, it was impressively large by 1992 standards. Only later, would that come to be considered on the dinky side.

IBM even manufactured the ThinkPad’s hard disk, which you could pop out from a hatch in the front of the notebook. That location was intended to let you swap in a disk on an airplane without elbowing your seatmate.

When CD-ROM drives came along, the ThinkPad got one. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]
Then there was the TrackPoint II–the tiny eraserhead-like mouse substitute which sat nestled between the G, H, and B keys. Devised by IBM engineers at a lab in Yorktown, New York and originally intended for use in desktop keyboards, it debuted on the ThinkPad 700c, offering precise pointing that didn’t require you to remove your hands from the keyboard. It was a significant improvement on the unwieldy, poorly placed trackballs that were typical fare on other laptops of the day. Like the front-mounted drive bay, it was designed with the tight quarters of airplanes in mind: “We knew the mouse was the best device for pointing, but you could not use a mouse in the air,” says Naitoh.

The ThinkPad design aesthetic has been so familiar for so long that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that it was originally a departure from the norm, not just for IBM but the entire PC industry. Sapper, who died in 2015, alternately said that he was inspired by a bento box or a cigar box. In either case, the 700C’s look was indeed unapologetically boxy, with squared-off angles and a lack of ornamentation. The color Sapper chose—a raven black–also helped the ThinkPad look elegantly purposeful, in an era when most big-name portable computers were beige, white, or various shades of gray, and didn’t seem to be aiming for any particular effect at all.

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Sapper even made the TrackPoint II part of the branding exercise by coloring it bright red, accenting the black case in a way that made a ThinkPad immediately recognizable. But that design flourish nearly didn’t happen: A stodgy higher-up in IBM design informed Sapper that red was reserved for emergency off switches on IBM mainframe computers.

“Richard, being kind of a creative guy in more ways than one, suggested to the IBM design man at the time that they should just change the name of the color from red to magenta,” remembers Hill. The “IBM Magenta” TrackPoint pasted muster, and became iconic.

As for the name “ThinkPad,” IBM borrowed it from a tablet device it had introduced the previous April, as part of a short-lived early 1990s tablet boom. The name cleverly referenced “Think,” an IBM exhortation to itself and the world introduced by company founder Thomas J. Watson in 1914.

Applying the “Pad” part of the name to a conventional clamshell notebook, however, was considered a questionable move by some pundits. “It would be really bad if they were going to keep pure keyboard notebooks in the line, because pad means pen,” an analyst helpfully explained to InfoWorld. Rather than bugging actual customers, however, the ThinkPad name successfully conveyed that the notebook was something new for IBM, a company whose historic computer-branding efforts tended to result in names like “IBM PS/2 Note N33 SX.”

At launch, the ThinkPad 700C listed for $4,350, or around $7,00 in today’s dollars That may sound like an imposing price tag–in 2017, you can get a ThinkPad Carbon X1 decked out with every available accessory for about $2,200–but top-of-the-line notebooks cost big money at the time, especially if they had color displays. For instance, the PC Magazine issue with the ThinkPad review also evaluated a Toshiba notebook with a list price of $6,098, or more than $10,000 in 2017 dollars.

Besides, the ThinkPad soon became enough of a status symbol that the very fact it was a ThinkPad helped it command a price premium over garden-variety rivals. Today, says software-industry editor and Network World blogger Fredric Paul, “you go into a coffee shop full of wannabe entrepreneurs and everyone has a silver MacBook. The ThinkPad was like that in the corporate world for a while.” (I was moved to ask Paul for his opinion of the ThinkPad’s importance because back when the original model was new, I was an editor for an InfoWorld supplement called InfoWorld Direct and he reviewed it for us–and deemed it to have “just about everything you could want in a notebook.”)

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Sapper’s design certainly helped sell ThinkPads, but the line also gained a reputation for substance, from the reliability of the hardware to the quality of IBM’s tech support. “They did a better job of not just coolness, but construction and solidity and support than a lot of their competitors did,” says Paul.

1995’s “Butterfly” ThinkPad managed to pack a keyboard that was wider than the case. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]

No Change For Change’s Sake

As successful as the first ThinkPad and its immediate successors were, it wasn’t preordained that their general look and feel would persist. In fact, when Hill was named to oversee ThinkPad design in 1995, the line’s general manager informed him that it was time to mix things up. “He felt like three years was enough, and we needed a new design,” Hill remembers. “I honestly couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Well, of all the problems we have, this isn’t one of them.’ So, I worked pretty diligently to explain to him, that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Hill won that argument–apparently on a permanent basis. But from the start, IBM hadn’t let the ThinkPad line’s predictable personality get in the way of experimenting with new ideas. In 1993, a year after the arrival of the 700C, for instance, the company teamed up with Canon to release a ThinkPad for the Japanese market with a built-in inkjet printer. (Your printout emerged from underneath the keyboard.)

Two years after that, IBM released the ThinkPad 701c, more fondly known by its code-name of “Butterfly.” An example of the pint-sized laptop known at the time as a “subnotebook,” it sported a two-piece keyboard that slid open to extend beyond the case’s edges as you flipped up the screen, providing extra width for comfier typing. (Naitoh’s book discusses the fascinating factoid that an IBM exec named Tim Cook—yes, the same one who is now Apple’s CEO—helped instigate the Butterfly project, a tidbit that Naitoh credits to his American co-author, William J. Holstein.) A sensation at the time, the Butterfly design wasn’t destined to live forever: Displays got larger even on super-portable computers, allowing for roomier keyboards without any technical wizardry.

Some of the more exotic ThinkPads have been downright odd. 2001’s ThinkPad TransNote incorporated a folio a built-in notepad that that let you write on paper and have your jottings automatically converted into digital ink. And in 2009, Lenovo’s ThinkPad W700ds made multi-monitor setups portable by letting you fold out a secondary display. Both models came and went quickly. But they too are evidence of the surprising flexibility of Sapper’s 1992 design vision. And the ThinkPad line has also been early to adopt numerous technologies that did end up having staying power, including CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, Wi-Fi, fingerprint scanners, and OLED displays.

A late IBM-era ThinkPad, not quite as boxy as its predecessors. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]

Enter Lenovo

The ThinkPad was good for IBM’s reputation, but the bottom line was another question. Between 2001 and mid-2004, the company lost nearly a billion dollars on its PC business, which looked more and more vestigial as IBM refocused its energies around high-end services for large clients rather than mass-produced products. When it announced that it was selling the operation to Lenovo for $1.75 billion in December 2004, executives told the New York Times’ Steve Lohr that the deal was the result of talks that had gone on for years.

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Given that one of the things ThinkPad enthusiasts prized about the line was its lack of surprises, there was understandable wariness about it being handed off to a Chinese company largely unknown outside its home market. Lenovo understood that and responded in part by trusting the decision-makers who had made ThinkPads popular in the first place. “The second we moved to Lenovo, the first thing we needed to do was convince people that it was the same people, the same team,” says Peter Hortensius, who first contributed to the ThinkPad as an IBM engineer and ended up managing the business at both IBM and Lenovo. “It was going to be just the same or better.”

A 2010 photo taken at Lenovo’s Yamato lab, the home of ThinkPad engineering from the beginning. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]
As of this year, the ThinkPad has been a Lenovo brand longer than it belonged to IBM, and the vast majority of the 100-million-plus ThinkPads sold to date have been Lenovo’s. But the behind-the-scenes continuity is remarkable. Between them, Naitoh, Hill, and Hortensius have 100-plus years of combined experience at IBM and Lenovo. (Hortensius shifted to Lenovo’s data-center group in 2016; Hill stepped down as ThinkPad design chief in June of this year but still contributes as a consultant.) The Yamato lab working on ThinkPad engineering, still led by Naitoh, currently has more than 400 employees, 44 percent of whom are former IBMers who were part of the ThinkPad team when Lenovo took over almost 13 years ago.

Letting ThinkPad be ThinkPad turned out to be a smart move on Lenovo’s part. Along with IBM’s PC business, the company had acquired the right to use the IBM name on PCs for five years. But it grew confident enough in the strength of its own brand–which was greatly boosted by its association with the ThinkPad–that it phased out IBM branding less than three years after completing the acquisition. More recently, it’s also begun more ambitious cross-pollination of the work of its Chinese engineers with Naitoh’s team in Yamato, resulting in models such as the X1 Yoga, which is part laptop and part tablet, yet still recognizably ThinkPad-esque.

The ThinkPad X1 Yoga’s hinge lets you use it any which way. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]
Now, it’s not a given that the ThinkPad’s consistency over a quarter century is something to be cherished. In 2015, my colleague Mark Wilson called the ThinkPad’s design “overrated,” arguing that the persistence of elements such as the TrackPoint might have more to do with Lenovo being intimidated by change-adverse fans than anything. ThinkPads have long included both a TrackPoint and a trackpad, a belt-and-suspenders sort of approach that you can regard as either overkill or an admirable commitment to user choice. Over the years, as I’ve met with Lenovo employees and heard them stress what a weighty matter it is to tweak the angles of a ThinkPad case even slightly, I’ve wondered about that conservatism myself.

Hortensius, however, says that what keeps ThinkPads relevant is trusty productivity rather than any specific aspect of a given model. “When I talk to customers and individuals, it’s not that it has the best keyboard and the best this and the best that,” he says. “It’s because I can count on it that those things matter.”

Even more than customers, those who have masterminded the line over the years care about its overarching focus on making new technologies useful and dependable than they do individual features and models. Hortensius calls ThinkPad “not so much an object as a belief system.”

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Asked to name his favorite ThinkPad, former design chief Hill rattles off a bunch of them: the original 700C, the Butterfly, the X300 (the first all-Lenovo version), and today’s X1 Carbon. Naitoh politely declines to play favorites at all on the grounds that it would be rude to his colleagues. “If I say I like the A model, the team that made the B model will be disappointed,” he says. And then, after a pause: “The greatest ThinkPad is the latest ThinkPad.”

The ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25, both new and classic. [Photo: courtesy Lenovo]
As of today, the latest ThinkPad happens to be a just-announced model called the ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25. Championed by Hill–and teased for years–it uses modern components but pays tribute to Sapper’s original design. ThinkPad obsessives may notice intentionally retro elements such as more status LEDs than are typical for modern laptops, a logo that evokes the color scheme of the “IBM” on the 700C’s case, and a keyboard reminiscent of the one that won praise in 1992.

Mostly, though, this 25th-anniversary ThinkPad doesn’t look like a nostalgic throwback–it just looks like a ThinkPad. That in itself is a statement about the line’s enduringly unique place in PC history.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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