When David Hill was put in charge of designing ThinkPad laptops in 1995, the members of his team wanted to know where he was headed with the design of the next generation of the laptop.
Hill, who was enamored with the original ThinkPad design and was well aware that the laptops were selling “like gangbusters,” had an unconventional response.
“I said, we’re going to make it better, not different,” Hill recalled recently. “My idea was to continuously hone and perfect this design.”
Hill, who today is vice president of Think design and user experience, has resolutely stuck with his if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach for two decades – first at IBM and then at Lenovo, which acquired the IBM PC business in 2005 and today is the No. 1 maker of PCs worldwide.
As the old adage insists, you can’t argue with success.
ThinkPad laptops, which debuted in 1992, perennially have been top sellers among business customers and in December surpassed an impressive milestone with the sale of the 100 millionth ThinkPad, cementing its status as an iconic brand.
But athough Lenovo already has sets its sight on the next ThinkPad milestone, the competition remains fierce – especially since Apple, which for years was mostly consigned to the consumer market, has been gaining ground among the business users coveted by the ThinkPad brand.
ThinkPad, Hill said, “is more than a brand name. The brand name and the design are synonymous. You can’t really talk about one without the other. It’s kind of unique – and it’s 20 years in the making.”
But the consistency of ThinkPad laptops over the past two decades goes beyond skin deep.
One constant throughout, said technology analyst Rob Enderle of The Enderle Group, is that “the ThinkPad brand stands for quality.”
Another enduring feature, he added, is that “they build the best keyboard in the business.”
At the same time, ThinkPad has ventured beyond the laptop category – with ThinkPad Tablets and ThinkPad Yoga tablets that double as laptops – and also has spawned an array of popular Think branded products. They include ThinkStation workstations, ThinkCentre desktops and ThinkVision monitors.
The world headquarters for the ThinkPad brand is in Morrisville, which serves as a Lenovo headquarters as well. Lenovo has about 3,500 workers in Morrisville.
Lenovo is a Chinese company, so it’s ironic that ThinkPad laptops and ThinkCentre desktops are among the few PCs being made in America today. Those devices also are produced in Mexico and China.
Each device made in the company’s 240,000-square-foot Guilford County facility, nearly 70 miles northwest of Raleigh, is packed in a box that sports a red-white-and-blue sticker proclaiming “Whitsett, North Carolina.” Lenovo has 300 workers in Whitsett, which doubles as a logistics center and provides services such as etching corporate logos on ThinkPad laptops.
Just as the design of ThinkPad laptops has steadily evolved, so have the manufacturing processes since Lenovo began producing devices in Whitsett two years ago.
That evolution starts with the facility’s workers, who are encouraged to suggest ways to improve efficiency.
“There’s no silver bullet here,” said Tony Pulice, plant manager. “It’s just a number of small improvements.”
Known for quality
Lenovo’s acquisition of IBM’s PC business a decade ago raised concerns in some quarters that the change in ownership would dent the quality of the vaunted ThinkPad brand. After all, Lenovo was an unknown quantity outside of China.
But quality hasn’t suffered.
“As far as I can tell, in some ways they have actually improved it a bit” as technology has advanced, Enderle said. “It carries the same brand attributes that it had under IBM.”
ThinkPad laptops are aimed first and foremost at the commercial, or business, market. Lenovo has steadfastly resisted the temptation to extend the ThinkPad and Think brands into the consumer arena, said David Roman, Lenovo’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer.
“A franchise ... is very valuable,” Roman said. “You have to make sure it will never be diluted.”
Lenovo doesn’t break out sales of its brands. But, according to market research firm IDC, Lenovo’s worldwide sales of commercial notebooks – mostly Thinkpad laptops – rose 5.6 percent last year, well ahead of the 1.1 percent hike in the overall commercial notebook market.
Still, last year Lenovo was unseated as the No. 1 maker of commercial notebooks by HP, whose sales rose 12.8 percent last year compared to Lenovo’s 5.6 percent. The fastest growing of all was No. 4 Apple, whose commercial notebook sales rose 20.5 percent.
The design for the original ThinkPad laptop was conceived by renowned industrial designer Richard Sapper. He modeled it after “the simplicity of the bento box,” said Roman, referring to the box-shaped meal containers popular in Japan.
“There is always an element of relative boxiness about ThinkPads,” Roman said. “But what has happened over the years is new materials, new technologies, enabled us to have a very slim form factor.” Form factor is industry jargon for the size and shape of a device.
“They’re not actually bento boxes anymore,” technology analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates said of the current generation of ThinkPad laptops. “They have bento elements to them. ... David (Hill) has been very good about tweaking that design to keep it modernized.”
Room for innovation
Another consistent design feature is the idiosyncratic bright red TrackPoint button – in the center of the keyboard – that functions as an alternative to the conventional touchpad. (ThinkPad laptops also feature a touchpad.)
Roman called the TrackPoint “pretty polarizing. People who like it, just love it. And there are some people who just don’t see the value.”
Hill, the design guru, is fond of comparing the evolving design of ThinkPad laptops to the classic Porsche 911.
“The 911, they don’t redesign it every year,” Hill said. “They build on a foundation of the original. You can have the original (alongside) a brand new one and you have the same spirit, the same DNA. You can see a lineage or a pedigree.”
Hill works in Morrisville along with roughly two-thirds of his design staff of more than 30.
“It’s not a huge team, but it’s a well-oiled team,” he said. “Some people have worked on the design of ThinkPad from the beginning.”
Continuously improving upon the ThinkPad design still leaves plenty of room for innovation.
In the late 1990s, ThinkPad introduced the first illuminated keyboard after Hill, during a nighttime airplane flight, fretted about disturbing his fellow passengers by turning on an overhead light so he could use his laptop. That’s when he spied a passenger reading a book with a clip-on light.
When he arrived back in the Triangle, Hill asked his team to develop a quickie prototype of a laptop keyboard you could use in the dark.
“We took an LED, a 9-volt battery, some wires and duct tape and duct-taped the LED to the top edge of the display of a TouchPad,” he said. “We had a little photo studio, went in there, turned off the lights, turned this thing on and we could see the keyboard perfectly.”
Over the years, figuring out ways to improve the ThinkPad has become progressively harder for the design team.
“When we first started the journey, there were a lot of things we needed to fix,” Hill said. For example, “like all the laptops in the early days, you were always running around looking for a power outlet to plug them into because the batteries didn’t last very long.”
But “after you’ve been at this for 20 years ... we have fixed the easy stuff,” Hill said. “We fixed the next tier. And we are kind of at the point that this thing is so highly perfected, it becomes difficult to know what to do next.”
So Lenovo consults with its corporate customers in search of new insights.
“We have CIOs (chief information officers) who have literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of ThinkPads,” Roman said. “They have a very strong vested interest in working with us.”
The ThinkPad design team meticulously compiles a list of “pain points” based on customer feedback. The current list, Hill said, contains at least a dozen items.
But it’s not a foolproof system.
“Sometimes we don’t get it right,” Roman said. “We actually changed the function keys on one version of the X1 Carbon and users didn’t like it, so we changed it back.”
PC sales have been sluggish in recent years, sparking speculation about the death of the PC. But Roman rejects such talk considering more than 300 million PCs were sold last year. And, he added, some PC categories – such as convertibles that function as both tablets and laptops and all-in-one desktops that integrate computer and monitor – are growing rapidly.
“Lenovo doesn’t look at it as one static market,” Roman said. “We look at these opportunities ... to use innovation to build these categories.”
Consequently, he remains upbeat about the future prospects of the ThinkPad and Think family of products.
“The PC never dies because it never matures. It evolves into something new and different,” Roman said. “We don’t know what PCs will be in two or three years time, but we know they will be different.”
If ThinkPad’s track record is any guide, its laptops will evolve along with the market. And, at the same time, they will retain an essence that is unmistakably ThinkPad.