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IBM's ThinkPad turns 10

The computer maker's notebook design set a standard for other designers to follow. Where does it go from here?

IBM's ThinkPad notebook turned 10 on Saturday, a milestone for what has become one of the most successful products and brand names in computing history.

Although IBM has seen its market share and influence in the desktop market slide, the ThinkPad has a commanding presence in the business market and is often a showcase for design innovations. To date, IBM has sold 15 million ThinkPads, up from 10 million in March 2000.

Color displays, 14-inch displays, full-sized keyboards, DVD drives and removable hard drives all appeared on the ThinkPad first--along with some notable failures such as an origami keyboard and screens with handwriting recognition. The portables also have flown on every space shuttle mission since Dec. 2, 1993, and are used on the International Space Station.

"It's the most successful commercial notebook in history," ARS analyst Matt Sargent said. "Dell Computer currently leads them, but if you look at the history, ThinkPad is the most successful commercial notebook out there."

ThinkPad's success is credited in part to its distinctive box design, which has stayed roughly the same. Industrial designer Richard Sapper designed ThinkPad's thin black case, accented only by the red, green and blue IBM logo in the corner. Beveled edges give the illusion the notebooks are smaller and thinner than their actual size. Many companies, which have experimented with rounded cases and colors to make laptops look like toilet seats, have turned to the ThinkPad's sleek, linear design, analysts said.

"We do not regard design as a way for selling more stuff," Sapper said. "We regard the design as being the business card of IBM. The very essence of IBM are its products. The services part you can't see."

Success in failure
Although the basic design has remained unchanged, the ThinkPad's look has been modified over the years--not always with great success. Analysts credit IBM with pushing the envelope, adding that many of the flops have turned into successes.

"They've always tried to come out with some things that were trendsetting or innovative," NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker said. "Most of them haven't succeeded, but at least they've been out there doing things like butterfly, touch screens and things like that. IBM doesn't get enough credit on the notebook side as someone that can deliver a unique product."

ThinkPad's most famous design innovation may have been the "butterfly" keyboard, which unfolded from within the notebook to full desktop size. IBM introduced the keyboard in March 1995 with the ThinkPad 701C, and the device now is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But the butterfly keyboard didn't last long. Consumers said it was difficult to use. IBM has said that it phased out the design because screens got bigger, allowing the company to put larger keyboards in its notebook chassis.

The ThinkPad name is derived from a pen-based tablet that the company announced in April 1992, a device that it quickly abandoned. But the name was used to launch the ThinkPad 700C, which debuted on Oct. 5, 1992. This model packed a 25MHz 486 processor, 4MB of memory expandable to 12MB, a 80MB hard drive and a 10.4-inch display.

"IBM was one of the first companies producing a tablet computer using the Go operating system," Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said. "Then they transferred the name. That's where it got the name 'pad.'"

IBM tried pen-based computing again in January 2001 with the introduction of the TransNote, a ThinkPad that could input text written on paper. But TransNote never found a foothold in the market. IBM discontinued the product in February.

Still, the notebook's design efforts have led to many successes, such as the ThinkPad 560 and 570, thin-and-light models weighing 4 pounds or less. In August, IBM revamped the ThinkPad X30, which packs in Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless technologies but in a relatively compact chassis due to the types of antennae IBM uses.

Other successful models include the ThinkPad 600, launched in April 1998. IBM also was the first company to incorporate titanium into the cases of its notebooks, an idea Apple followed later with an all-titanium notebook. IBM has also been a big promoter of the TrackPoint, the red twig in the center of the keyboard.

Challenges ahead
ThinkPad's next 10 years of life will require IBM to keep the portable from getting lost in the company's myriad products, as well as its increased emphasis on services.

"The brand ThinkPad has achieved a place a lot of other manufacturers would like to be," Dulaney said. "But IBM's challenge going forward is in marketing and sales." He added, "They haven't done a very good job communicating that with customers. They're somewhat encumbered by the rest of IBM because things get kind of muddled in such a large organization."

The notebook's future success also depends on price. "Their products are reasonably priced, but they always get the image of being high-priced," Dulaney said. "That's an image they haven't been able to overcome."

IBM's decision to all but abandon the consumer portable market also could affect the ThinkPad in coming years. "IBM is the only major notebook manufacturer that has largely ignored the consumer market," Sargent said.

Dell, by contrast, is aggressively selling notebooks to consumers. "If you look at that thing the last eight months, it has been 70 to 80 percent dedicated to notebooks," he said.