The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer maker is working to redefine what people view as a notebook computer by moving away from traditional forms to exotic but more functional designs.
"Notebooks of tomorrow don't have to look like clamshells," said Leo Suarez, IBM's worldwide product marketing manager for mobile systems. "I want to move away from the clamshell business."
On Thursday, New York's Museum of Modern Art will open an exhibit called "WorkSpheres," which will include the prototype of a new IBM portable: the Life Networking InfoPortal.
InfoPortal is a computer tablet that features touchless pointing for navigating on the screen, fingerprint authentication, and an integrated video camera for multimedia communications. The 10-inch square and 2-inch thick device also features sensors that allow InfoPortal to adjust its position to the person using it.
As innovative as InfoPortal may be, wearable PCs carry more of a science fiction kind of appeal. IBM's original wearable computer design, released in the late 1990s, featured a ThinkPad 570 condensed to fit on a belt, with the display built into an eyepiece worn on the head.
The company is exploring other alternatives now, such as PCs sewn into clothing. "There is a lot happening on the wearable side other than strapping something to your belt and a headset on your head," Suarez said.
He noted that shirts with wires sewn in the neckline will soon reach the market. The wires can change colors, depending on a person's desire. "The possibilities are interesting in terms of design, form and function," Suarez quipped.
Still, IBM faces challenges making some mobile devices palatable for the market. IBM's wrist computer, or WatchPad, is a great marketing concept, but the cost of goods is still too high for the mass market.
"People are used to paying $59.95 for a watch, so $2,000 is a tough sell for a watch computer," Suarez said. "The key to WatchPad's success would have to be a user price below $500."
Many of IBM's more exotic designs are still a year or more from market, but they share a similar approach to products queued up for 2001 delivery: emphasis on people's needs over technology for technology's sake.
"What you're seeing from IBM is an increasing focus on how technology is used, rather than releasing the same products with faster processors," Technology Business Research analyst Bob Sutherland said.
That strategy apparently has paid off. IBM in the fourth quarter captured the top spot in worldwide notebook shipments, pushing ahead of Toshiba and beating back Dell Computer. IBM finished the quarter with 13.5 percent market share compared with Dell's 13 percent, according to preliminary estimates from Dataquest. Toshiba, with its 12.5 percent share, dropped to third position from first.
IBM's first volley in this transition away from typical designs will be the ThinkPad TransNote, which the company will begin selling later this month. The notebook is enclosed in a portfolio, transmits notes scribbled on a memo pad, and stores them for quick retrieval or indexing.
The design encapsulates IBM's desire to focus on what people actually want from a computer.
"In focus groups, we would bring out the TransNote, and people would say, 'That's enough. You don't need to explain what it does. I understand. Now where can I buy one?'" Suarez said. "That's the kind of technology we want to make."
TransNote is drawing initial interest from educators, insurance agents, lawyers and Wall Street analysts.
"Two years from now, we want ThinkPad to stand for mobility and not to be looked at as a notebook," Suarez said.
Subtle changes ahead
Other changes coming in 2001 are more subtle, but again focused on what IBM asserts that people want.
In a move more focused on businesses, Big Blue will offer an embedded security chip on the ThinkPad. Suarez would not give a timetable other than "real soon."
IBM, a leader in voice-recognition technology, also has plans to begin selling later this year an optional microphone and ViaVoice bundle for ThinkPad. The omnidirectional microphone, which Suarez said offers "extremely good diffusion of external" sounds, fits into ThinkPad's Portofino connector positioned on the edge of the top lid.
IBM plans to deliver both Portofino devices by midyear.
In other wireless plans, Big Blue will begin offering integrated 802.11B wireless networking across the ThinkPad line this year. The computer maker has taken a cautious approach to wireless networking, which allows notebooks to connect to corporate networks and the Internet without cables, because businesses have expressed concerns about security.
These may be justified. This week, computer scientists at the University of California at Berkeley revealed a security hole in the algorithm used to protect data transmitted over 802.11B wireless networks.
A larger threat is what Suarez described as "guerrilla networks" within large companies. These are small pockets of employees or branch offices adopting wireless networking for their convenience, but failing to correctly set up security.
"There could be this backdoor the IT manager knows nothing about," Suarez said. "Literally, someone parked outside could hack into the network with a wireless notebook."