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Butterfly notebook may spread wings again

IBM is experimenting anew with notebook designs that mimic one of its most famous and controversial designs: the expanding Butterfly keyboard.

    RALEIGH, N.C.--IBM is experimenting anew with notebook designs that mimic one of its most famous and controversial designs: the expanding Butterfly keyboard.

    Big Blue originally introduced the Butterfly on the ThinkPad 701C in March 1995. The unusual design--a keyboard that folded out when the notebook was opened up, making it wider than the screen--garnered much praise, leading to the machine's inclusion in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

    Despite such plaudits and initial popularity of the design, not all people were as impressed, with some complaining that the unsupported keyboard was difficult to type on. IBM eventually discontinued the line, arguing that the increased size of notebook screens meant that a full-size keyboard could be incorporated without the need for a fold-out system.

    However, the company's design center here has been experimenting with a number of designs that use Butterfly-like technology. One subnotebook prototype incorporates a similar folding keyboard. But instead of splitting out from the middle like the original Butterfly, the right-hand side alone detaches from the bottom of the machine and can be locked in position to create a full-size keyboard.

    Another pair of systems--described by design director David Hill as an "origami-like machine"--aim to blur the distinction between notebooks and desktops by allowing the notebook screen to be elevated on a separate arm and the keyboard to be angled, creating a system that's hard to distinguish from a desktop PC equipped with a flat screen. In one such model, the keyboard can also be detached entirely.

    Hill emphasized that there are no current plans to commercialize any of the designs but said there was no intrinsic reason why this couldn't be done if demand warranted it. "The technology required to do it is not enormously sophisticated," he said.

    One big incentive for converging desktop and notebook designs is the increasing popularity of the latter. "We continue to see phenomenal growth in portables," IDC analyst Loren Loverde noted earlier this month.

    Angus Kidman of ZDNet Australia reported from North Carolina.