IBM revives Butterfly concept

Big Blue is toying with notebook designs mimicking its famous Butterfly keyboard

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

Big Blue originally introduced the Butterfly on the ThinkPad 701C in March 1995. The unusual design -- a keyboard which 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, not all users 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 needing the fold-out system.

However, the company's design centre in Raleigh, North Carolina has been experimenting with a number of designs which use Butterfly-like technology. One sub-notebook prototype viewed by ZDNet Australia 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 director of design 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 emphasised that there were no current plans to commercialise any of these 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."

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.