Fifteen years of ThinkPad highs and lows

Fifteen years of ThinkPad highs and lows

Summary: From the wearable to the methane-powered, we take a walk through 15 years of one of tech's most enduring brands

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Wearable ThinkPads, Transmeta-based ThinkPads, methane-powered ThinkPads, flaming ThinkPads, butterfly ThinkPads and even — briefly — coloured ThinkPads.

It is 15 years this July since the first product to bear the name "ThinkPad" graced the shelves, in the form of the 2521 ThinkPad, a tablet design sporting a 20MHz 386SX processor and a 20MB solid-state hard drive. Since that launch, this most enduring of tech brands has gone through a lot; some of it good, some of it not so good. Here's a potted history.

The original monochrome device was soon renamed the ThinkPad 700T to bring it in line with two other models released by IBM in October of that year, the 700 and 700C. Taking a clamshell format, those computers were the first iterations of the ThinkPad notebook we still recognise today.

The brand is so old that it predates even ZDNet.co.uk. The first story we dedicated to the ThinkPad was on 5 February, 1997. On that date, IBM announced price cuts for the 133MHz Pentium-based ThinkPad 760ED with 16MB RAM and a 12.1-inch TFT screen, sliced from £5,449 to a bargain £4,509 (VAT excluded).

By July 1997, things were already getting closer to what we would recognise as a modern specification with news of the ThinkPad 770 line, which promised DVD drives and up to 10GB hard disk storage. In September our then editorial fellow Guy Kewney was struggling not to make "unkind remarks about the history of the ThinkPad range, and the difficulty of using some examples of the species for productive work even when making strenuous efforts to do so", but soon news broke that IBM was to offer their first sub-£1,000 notebooks.

A year later, IBM was showing off its prototype of a wearable ThinkPad, "shrunk to the footprint of a 3Com Palm with a 233MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, 340MB hard drive and voice-activated interface". A more practical approach appeared in 1999 in the shape of the ThinkPad 600, IBM's first "Red Hat-ready" laptop, which was undermined only by the fact that it shipped without Linux drivers for its modem.

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One experiment that did not last was IBM's attempt to make the ThinkPad a more colourful beast, when in October 1999 it released new models in the consumer-friendly i Series with snap-on covers ranging "from a metallic green to an IBM blue colour". By May 2000 signs began to appear that IBM was considering exiting the PC business, although its ThinkPad line was still successful. The following month IBM announced a fresh push into Linux, with preloaded ThinkPads part of its strategy. It also demonstrated ThinkPads using Transmeta's Crusoe chips — a range boosted by the involvement of one Linus Torvalds — but ditched the idea within months because the promised battery-life savings did not materialise.

February 2001 saw IBM showing off more wearable designs, but such concepts went the way of another idea, the ThinkPad TransNote. Although it let users input data via jotting notes on paper, the idea never caught on and the TransNote line was abandoned within a year. More successful was the idea of a laptop with integrated Wi-Fi, which made it into the ThinkPad range in the form of the T23.

IBM introduced fingerprint-based security and RFID "proximity badges" to the range in 2002 — a feature that proved more practical and practicable than the idea of notebooks being powered by methane within five years. The company also started playing around again with the idea of a "Butterfly" keyboard, which it had used before in the ThinkPad 701C (in 1995) but ditched when laptop screens became big enough to allow a full-sized keyboard to be integrated into the machine.

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In 2003, the cracks started showing. Although IBM was vigorously defending its support for its PC and notebook lines in November, it was only a year before it announced the sale of that business to Lenovo, allowing IBM to concentrate on services, software and high-end computers. The sale was not a smooth affair, with the Chinese company facing accusations by the Republican Party of being a "security risk".

In June 2005 Lenovo announced the first ThinkPad that was convertible into a tablet format, the X41T, and in February of the following year the company folded HSDPA (super 3G) connectivity into the ThinkPad line. Suse Linux became available as a preloaded option in August 2006.

The line also became caught up in the exploding-battery saga of late 2006, after a ThinkPad, using a Sony battery, burst into flames at LAX airport. Lenovo ended up having to recall hundreds of thousands of ThinkPad batteries as a result.

Topic: Hardware

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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