Happy 20th birthday to the IBM ThinkPad: a design classic

Happy 20th birthday to the IBM ThinkPad: a design classic

Summary: The IBM ThinkPad range of notebook PCs, now owned by China's Lenovo, has been around for 20 years and is still going strong. But the name was originally used for a range of IBM touch-sensitive tablet PCs, which flopped.

TOPICS: Laptops, Lenovo

Lenovo has just celebrated its IBM ThinkPad's 20th birthday, though it appears somewhat muted for what has been the leading brand of laptop for most of its lifetime. The Chinese company, which took over IBM's PC division in 2005, reminded us of its longevity last week when it showed off some new portables, the ThinkPad Carbon X1 and the ThinkPad Tablet 2 for Windows 8. Both are due in October.

While the ThinkPad Carbon X1 is a thin and light (1.3kg) carbon fibre Ultrabook, it would be instantly recognisable to anyone who saw the 700C at Comdex in Las Vegas in November 1992. It has an iconic black finish with the ThinkPad logo across the bottom right of the case plus, like a diminutive cherry on the cake, the essential red pointing device in the middle of the keyboard.

ThinkPad X1 carbon

Of course, the ThinkPad wasn't intended to be a laptop but a tablet with touch-sensitive screen, and that's what IBM showed at the Comdex computer show in 1991. In the late 1980s, many people thought tablets represented the future of mobile computing, and as the world's largest and most powerful computer company, IBM intended to launch a successful system.

In this case, the name and branding came from IBM's motto, Think, and the standard-issue Think notepad that 30-year IBM veteran Denny Wainwright carried around in his white shirt pocket. For the full story, see ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue by Deborah Dell (a member of the ThinkPad team) and Gerry Purdy.

The problem was that nobody told Compaq, which was IBM's big rival in PCs at the time. In October 1989, Compaq redefined the whole portable computer industry by introducing what was effectively the first A4-sized notebook PC: the Lte Notebook PC. As an IBMer said, "Man, did the world change on us almost overnight."

IBM announced its pen-based ThinkPad tablet, the T700, in 1992, and followed up with the T710 in 1993 and T730 in 1994, but the product flopped. Meanwhile, Compaq was eating IBM's lunch.

X1 keyboard with TrackPoint
X1 keyboard with TrackPoint

With customers demanding an IBM equivalent to Compaq's notebook, IBM set out to produce one in a hurry. While the PC division was run from Boca Raton in Florida, IBM got the engineering done by IBM Japan in Yamoto, and the IBM research lab at Almaden, near San Jose, created the TrackPoint. The team's efforts resulted in the first ThinkPad notebook, the 700C PC, which was the hit of the 1992 Comdex computer show.

There were plenty of struggles along the way, as noted in the ThinkPad book mentioned above. By IBM corporate standards, for example, the ThinkPad should have been a pearly cream, and the TrackPoint wasn't supposed to be red, the colour IBM reserved for "emergency power off" use.

Looking back, it's hard to appreciate what a powerful and distinctive shock the ThinkPad's red-and-black styling delivered. This was not your granddad's IBM.

The ThinkPad 700C was a smash hit, and in two years it took IBM's portable PC business from $120 million a year (on which it lost $240 million) to $3 billion.

As you might guess, I used ThinkPads for many years, and a particular favourite was the ThinkPad 240X (PDF), launched in May 2000. This was small and light (also 1.3kg), and it didn't have either a floppy drive or a CD/DVD optical drive built in. It was the MacBook Air of its day, except the ThinkPad had a much better keyboard than the Mac, and felt better made. (Mine was made in Greenock in Scotland, before IBM moved production to China to cut costs.)

Although the 240X had a limited specification -- 500MHz Mobile Pentium III with 64MB to 192MB of memory and Windows 2000 -- it was comfortable enough for my peripatetic journalistic purposes: word processing, email and web browsing. The main reason for eventually replacing it was the limited 800 x 600 resolution of the 10.4inch screen, which prompted my move to an X31.

As you might also guess, travelling ThinkPad users form a sort of secret society -- people of taste and discernment -- though it's a commendably egalitarian one. If you have a ThinkPad, nobody cares which one it is. I found it strikingly different to using Mac portables, where people look down their noses at you if you don't have the latest model. (I'm often three or more years behind.)

It's also a society that has included Steve Jobs's illegitimate daughter and various ex-Apple staff, including former boss John Sculley.

Lenovo's birthday party was held in a private room in New York's Museum of Modern Art, and China Daily's report included a picture of the cake. While I'm not sure how Lenovo picked the date, the ThinkPad line of notebook PCs (not touch-screen pads) was announced on 5 October 1992 at 590 Madison Avenue, IBM's former headquarters in New York. There's still the chance to have a bigger and better party, though I'd quite understand waiting for the 25th anniversary instead.

The ThinkPad line is a design classic. It will still be around...

Topics: Laptops, Lenovo

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • Could easily be the best line of laptops ever made.....

    I started with a ThinkPad 560Z, which is still alive and running RedHat Linux 6.0. Over the years, I've gone from the 600 and 600X (heavy suckers), through the T40 and T60 models (I currently have a T60 running the latest rev of Ubuntu Linux), to my current ThinkPad W520. I've never had a hardware problem that I didn't cause (*grin*), and I sent my daughter to college last fall with a T60 that easily endured the rigors of collegiate life far better than did her friends' MacBooks and contemporary netbooks/laptops.

    If you have an old ThinkPad laying around, consider using it for exploring Linux! See thinkwiki.org for all the details you'll need. If not, contact me - I can always use another!
  • Heh, I forgot about my G40...

    It's running Ubuntu Linux, and my kids are able to do almost all of their high school work with it...
  • Love my Thinkpads ...

    I still have some T42's kicking around (great for bedroom) and they run Windows 7 great. I'd love the resolution a little higher but the best thing about ThinkPads is the damn keyboard is killer .. I HATE the new clicklet style. I also really like the little light built in for night typing.

    Really it's the best value out there, you can grab a T40/42 for under $200 max out the memory and have a great browser / office laptop.
  • Touch + Windows = Flop

    It's an old pattern that keeps repeating...
    • Except...

      They just redesigned their whole UI to be more touch compatible, so it's really too early to call it a flop until we actually SEE and USE these new devices with windows 8.
    • Depends how you define flop, of course....

      IBM was using GO's PenPoint not Windows, but Windows for Pen Computing (etc) wasn't really a flop in its small professional/industrial niche.

      Windows XP Tablet PC Edition obviously flopped with consumers, but again, it picked up a niche of appreciative users. This included smarter journalists who liked the way you could sync a recording with handwritten notes in OneNote. That was pretty impressive a decade ago...
      Jack Schofield
  • deja vu

    Oh My God!!! It has rounded corners! They copied the iPad!!!!! ;-)
  • Happy Birthday, ThinkPad

    Now on T420 i5, the one with the deeper 1600 x 900 screen, family and friends scattered throughout the world are still using my hand-me-down T60s - and earlier.

    Yes I have all sorts of PCs and iDevices, but my TP is "home" - matte black, red nipple, matte screen (very important), square, solid, clicky keypad, restrained - and reassuringly expensive. Love it. Keep 'em coming. Move forward, but never change the basics.
  • Memories

    My Mom's Thinkpad was my introduction to laptop computers. The RAM was pitiful, but I still love that little red "trackpad." Much easier to use than anything on any other laptop.
    BTW: It still amazes me that IBM did not adapt its RISC PowerPC processor to Windows to challenge the junk coming from Intel at the time. In one stroke, IBM's new processor made the Mac much more capable than any PC.
    • Search for PReP and CHRP...

      IBM, Apple and Motorola agreed a common standard reference platform based on PowerPC chips, with the idea that the same machine would run Mac OS, OS/2, AIX and Windows NT. IBM even had some machines in a warehouse at some point (1994) because I got hold of a photocopied user start-up guide. However, for whatever reason, Apple never followed through on its promises.

      At the time, IBM's OS/2 was already losing out to Windows, and Motorola didn't have any market power, so without Apple, the whole thing was dead in the water.

      I heard various stories about what happened behind closed doors, and apparently at least a few IBMers reckoned Apple had stabbed them in the back. Or the front. Sadly, nobody was willing to go public. It would be nice if a few of the survivors would open up now....

      Either way, the power of the x86 installed base made it commercially impossible to move away from x86, even for Intel. DEC tried selling some quite nice PCs running Windows NT on its own Alpha RISC chip, but they died a death as well.
      Jack Schofield
  • Thinkpads Forever . . .

    I could not afford a Thinkpad when they first came out, so settled for my first laptop on an IBM PS Note - Win 3.11, 2mb of memory, something like 64 shades for gray for the LCD and may 640 x 480 resolution (do not remember the size odf the drive). $1800 if memory serves but worth it around 1993 and it could run rings around the corporate AT's my then company had. A marvelous keyboard. Ran Ami Pro for word processor, kicked WP 5.2 and Word for DOS to the curb many times over.

    After that, my first Thinkpad was a T755c (dx2-486-50, 4 MB memory and I upgraded it to Win 95, active matrix color, wow). And then off we went. Three different 560's (ending with the PII 560z running Win 98 SE), T-20, @-30, T-42, T-61 and now T-420s (going back to a smaller form factor). All solid, good, reliable machines (some bought off of lease and still cool).

    Lenovo has carried on the tradition of quality, the eraser pointer (I always disable the touchpad), the matte screen and the keyboard every desktop jockey wishes s/he had.

    So, for me, not quite 20 years, but almost. Now if I could just be around for the 40th . . .
  • How very true...!

    "...travelling ThinkPad users form a sort of secret society -- people of taste and discernment -- though it's a commendably egalitarian one. If you have a ThinkPad, nobody cares which one it is."