IBM's ThinkPad range has always been a ghostly presence at the edge of my perception. I knew that they were boxy and black, and that's about it. By coincidence, October 2012 was the twentieth anniversary of the brand, so I decided to find out more and set down my thoughts so that people in the future might look back and think "there was a man". I predict that in 2014 I will go back and revise the text so that it doesn't have so many commas.
This article is illustrated with some photographs which are mostly unrelated to the text, but because this is a multimedia blog with a global outlook I want to cater for people who don't read English, or indeed who can't read at all. Blind people, for example. Foreign people. Pre-schoolers. Blind, foreign pre-schoolers. They can look at the photographs and skip the words.
I begin. Intake of breath. There was a time when second-hand laptops were invariably naff, broken lumps of obsolete plastic that nobody wanted. But the pace of laptop technology advanced in a series a great leaps and bounds during the 2000s until it reached a level of general competence, and nowadays almost any second-hand laptop from the last six years or so is at the very least decent for surfing the internet and writing stuff. Assuming it's in working order and doesn't have hairs etc inside the case. During the early 2000s telephone modems gave way to wi-fi, infra-red IRDA ports were replaced with Bluetooth, 6gb hard drives were replaced with 250gb models, a single USB 1 port became three USB 2 sockets, and mobile Pentium IIIs gave way to fast, efficient Core Duo chips, which have aged very gracefully.
I say good working order and hairs etc inside the case. eBay has a lot of rubbishy tat with missing keys, cracked screens, broken hinges, failing fans, port covers missing. Stripped of their hard drives and anything that might be worth something. Some laptops are built more solidly than others, and ThinkPads have always been notable for their robustness. Not just their physical strength, but the ease with which they can be repaired. They are like World War Two fighter planes, tough and easy to strip down.
I was inspired to write this article after buying a used ThinkPad X60, a Core Duo machine from 2006. The X60 was very popular and there are lots of them on the used market. Six years later they're still useful as general-purpose machines, albeit that they're useless for 3D games on account of the ropey Intel 965 graphics card. My X60's hard drive easily swaps out via a port in the side, and the entire machine can be stripped to the chassis with the aid of a screwdriver and a service guide that Lenovo publishes online (pdf). Indeed, a year or so after writing this post I did just that in order to blow dust out of the fan and reapply thermal paste to the CPU and graphics chip. This was a fairly simple matter of opening up the case and propping up the motherboard.
Old ThinkPad batteries and accessories are still widely available, although nowadays they're generic components that no longer have the Lenovo name on them. Legend has it that the IBM models were better-made than the Lenovo models, and having since bought a 1999 ThinkPad 600X I can attest to this, but I am of the opinion that modern ThinkPads are more a consequence of the times than Lenovo. And that if IBM still made them, they would be no more robust.
The ThinkPad range dates back to the early 1990s. In IBM's time they were expensive but sold well, because the laptop market was small and prepared to pay top dollar. That situation could not, and did not last in the PC laptop market, although Apple has shown that it is still possible to sell posh, expensive laptops. More of that later in the text.
The range divides into three loosely-defined eras, and to complicate things there are two different types of ThinkPad. The very first ThinkPad was actually a tablet computer, and although IBM quickly gave up on the idea of tablet computing the form factor was resurrected by Lenovo, initially to no effect and then later to some effect, but still not much. I'll write about the tablets separately. First, the laptops.
Before the ThinkPad: I Want to See the Sun Blotted out From the Sky
IBM began the 1980s by inventing the modern PC, and the story of how IBM built a future it could not keep is familiar to one and all. The combination of IBM's PC Microsoft's DOS operating system dominated the PC industry for years, but IBM made two key errors. Their original PC, the Model 5150 of 1981, had been built with off-the-shelf components that IBM did not control, and DOS was licensed from Microsoft rather than bought outright. This left Microsoft free to sell their operating system to other manufacturers - who were in turn free to assemble their own PC-compatible machines. IBM owned some of the PC's fundamental operating routines, but the competition quickly found a way to emulate them without infringing on IBM's patents.
As a consequence cheap, IBM-compatible machines made by other companies quickly became more popular than IBM's own computers. IBM's hardware was built to a very high standard - computer enthusiasts still speak highly of the steel-backed Model M keyboard - and the company retained a substantial share of the market right up until it decided to exit the business in 2002, but it never found a way to transform that market share into profit. IBM couldn't churn out masses of cheap rubbish and drive down costs because IBM wasn't in the business of churning out cheap rubbish. Unlike Apple it couldn't make money from expensive, fashionable, high-margin products, because the PC standard was not under IBM's control, and there was only so much value a steel-backed keyboard would add to a PC.
Although IBM's PCs sold well in the 1980s its portable computers flopped badly. The company launched only two portable models during the decade. The Model 5155 of 1984 was a luggable suitcase machine that weighed 13kg and needed to be plugged into the mains in order to work. Unfortunately for IBM, Compaq had beaten them to market by a year, with a cheaper PC-compatible machine that sold in greater quantities. IBM followed this with their first proper laptop, the PC Convertible of 1986, which attracted lukewarm reviews for its utter blandness. Infoworld's writer could barely contain his boredom, opining that "there is nothing special in its performance, and nothing especially bad either". It was essentially an original, 1981-vintage IBM PC in a contemporary laptop case. It was a poor deal compared to Toshiba's T1100 Plus, which was slightly cheaper and could run at a higher clock speed. By the early 1990s IBM was a marginal player in the laptop market.
This riled IBM design chief Tom Hardy, who became mad, mean mad. He got in touch with Milan-based industrial consultant Richard Sapper, who had been consulting for IBM since the early 1980s. Sapper came up with a clean, simple case based loosely on a Japanese "bento" lunchbox, whilst Kazuhiko Yamazaki, head of IBM Yamato's R&D centre, finessed the hardware. The stylish approach was an odd fit with IBM's corporate culture, which emphasised solid engineering above looks. Sapper found himself frustrated by IBM's insistence on standardisation and ergonomics, but the tension between art and science did the brand the power of good. ThinkPads sold well because they looked nice but also because they had a range of standard ports and were otherwise technically sound and widely compatible. Sapper obviously had no hard feelings, because he continued to work on the ThinkPad range on and off over the next twenty years, designing (amongst others) a leather-bound 15th anniversary model in 2007.
Fuji Velvia 50
The first of IBM's new laptops wasn't actually sold as a ThinkPad, though. It was launched in 1991 in Japan as the PS/55 Note, and later in the rest of the world as the PS/2 Note, of which there were two models - the N33 and the N51, both based on the 386. Performance-wise they were nothing special, but their clean, starkly simple design was striking. The PS/2 Note came out shortly before the rest of the ThinkPad range but was essentially a ThinkPad in all but name; the keyboard design, in particular, with the broken-out arrow keys, was carried straight over.
At the same time IBM's in-house design team also came up with their own PS/2-based laptop, the L40SX, which appears very badly dated in comparison. Looking through old computer magazines, IBM seemed to advertise it far more, although it was apparently not nearly as popular as its the PS/2 Note. There was also the colour CL57, an odd half-way house, with a black case and ThinkPad-style lines but the awkward hinge design of the L40. The L40 is what people expected of IBM at the time. That's how things might have been in another world.
The PS/55 Note
The L40 SX - to be fair, that's not a bad spec for 1991
So, to the question of what was the first ThinkPad, the answer is that it was the 1991 IBM PS/55 Note. There are a handful of pictures of the machine on the internet and it is no doubt staggeringly rare today. Do any of them work? Depends on whether the CMOS battery could be replaced with a generic part. Probably not much use for anything except illustrating a blog post about ThinkPads.
The Early IBM Era: Big Black Shape with Eyes of Fire
The very first official ThinkPad laptops were launched in October 1992. There were three of them. The 700C was the top of the range, a 486-based machine with a high-quality 640x480 colour screen, although there was also a monochrome version. They were both housed in a black, squared-off clamshell case that was like nothing else on the market at the time (except for the PS/2 Note, natch). The 700C came preloaded with Microsoft DOS 5.0 and had four megabytes of memory as standard, but could be upgraded to sixteen megabytes, with a 120mb hard drive. It cost $4,350, which was almost exactly the same as a contemporary Apple Powerbook 170, and surprisingly good value for IBM. There was also a ThinkPad 300, which was a larger, cheaper, 386-based machine with a claimed ten-hour battery life and, almost uniquely for a ThinkPad, no trackpoint nib. In fact it was essentially an upgraded PS/2 Note. At $2,375 for the cheapest model it was more expensive than a Powerbook 100, a rare example of an Apple product being cheaper than its PC equivalent.
Contemporary press adverts give a taste of the intended market; there's a photograph of a long-haul Lockheed L-1011, the tagline is "what Shakespeare would have used on a flight to the coast", and the text ends with a promise that if you buy a ThinkPad 300 you will "experience your next flight on a higher plane", which is a terrible pun that doesn't even make sense, unless IBM's copywriters were implying that your next flight would be on a LearJet, which famously cruises at 43,000 feet, 10,000 feet higher than an L-1011, thus making it a higher plane, and more desirable from an executive's point of view because you have to be pretty high-up to be given a ride in a LearJet, in which case it's still an awkward pun.
1992 was (breathes in) a very long time (breathes) ago in computing terms. Only eighteen months earlier most laptops resembled the Macintosh Portable - a kind of miniature suitcase with a flip-up front half - and absolute sales were still very small. In 1988 US laptop market sales amounted to just 630,000 machines; in 1991 that had risen to 4.9 million. In comparison, the equivalent figure for 2011 was 21.4 million, but that was in the middle of a recession, at a time when the laptop market was under attack from tablets. The clamshell had only just become mainstream in 1992. Apple's tiny, influential Powerbook 100 was only a year old at that point.
It's interesting to compare the early ThinkPads with the early Powerbooks. In their day they were the public faces of Apple and the entire PC laptop world respectively. They were the laptop done right, much smaller and thinner than previous laptops, with good-quality keyboards, excellent screens in the top-of-the-range models and almost as much power as a desktop. Back then everybody in the market for a laptop wanted one or the other. In absolute terms the 700C was expensive, but all laptops were expensive; they were bleeding-edge technology.
1992 was pre-touchpad, and so both machines used input devices that seem unusual today. The Powerbooks had a trackball, which Apple had introduced with the 1988 Macintosh Portable and carried on using for a few years afterwards. IBM opted for a novel product of their own making, the TrackPoint. A little plastic nib that generally lived between the G and H keys, although there were exceptions (the 300 didn't have one, and the Japan-only 220 had a trackball above and to the left of the keyboard). You nudged it with the tip of your finger in order to move the pointer around, as if you were trying to slowly crush a ladybird.
The TrackPoint had been devised in the mid-1980s by Ted Selker, a researcher at Xerox PARC. He had noticed that mouse users had to shift their hands from the keyboard in order to use the mouse, which took a split-second to do. Those split-seconds added up, and if they could be eliminated people would be able to leave work a few minutes earlier, or wake up a few minutes later. Either way it was a Good Thing.
After moving to IBM Selker found his new employer wary of the concept, but the alternatives were even less appealing. Apple's trackball was bulky and prone to mechanical problems, and IBM didn't want to remind people of the Powerbook range. Travel mice were no use on an airliner, pop-out trackballs were flimsy, and so the 700 was launched with a distinctive red TrackPoint lodged into the keyboard. After a while IBM became very proud of it, and it appeared prominently in the early ThinkPad adverts.
And later, in the ThinkPad logo itself
Shot with a Sony Mavica FD71
IBM was initially wary of making the TrackPoint red. Legend has it only the power switch was allowed to be red, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s IBM used blue as their accent colour. So the story goes the ThinkPad design team got around this by claiming that the TrackPoint was actually magenta, and by making the original TrackPoint nib slightly purple. Looking at pictures of the 700C this seems to be only partly true. The TrackPoint is just as red as ever; it's the mouse buttons that are purple, so perhaps IBM's prohibition only applied to buttons. By 1993 the 750C had bright red mouse button accents, so presumably the rule had been relaxed by then. From mid-2001 ThinkPads started to break up the mass of black and red with blue enter keys, and since time immemorial the status lights have been bright green, so rather like Greenland or Slough ThinkPads are actually quite colourful if you study them closely.
There's another amusing anecdote that every history of the ThinkPad range has to include. It's something about how German regulations forbade laptops from being black, because black apparently promoted eye strain, and so ThinkPads had to be sold with a sticker that read "not for office use" on the base, which is funny ho ho because they were aimed at office workers. The problem is that it sounds like total rubbish, and until I see a photograph of this sticker I'm going to spurn this tale with my toe.
The TrackPoint remains synonymous with the range to this day, although modern ThinkPads also have a touchpad. On a personal level I have used both, and they have their strengths and weaknesses. The TrackPoint often feels "sludgy", and some people don't get on with them. On the other hand, you don't have to move your hands from the keyboard to use them, and it's a lot harder to shift the pointer accidentally. There are persistent, unfounded rumours that Lenovo will abandon the TrackPoint as a cost-saving measure, but the company strenuously denies this, and who I am to doubt them?
In 1992 the Powerbook and the ThinkPad were like photo negatives of each other, one grey, the other jet black. ThinkPads had a more serious air and were praised for their tough build quality, which was one of Apple's weak points at the time. Apple made their machines stylish, but with dicky tickers; IBM tried to make theirs immortal. Mid-early ThinkPads were extraordinarily easy to upgrade and maintain, with clearly-labelled components that just slotted out. Legend has it that Steve Jobs Himself owned and sang the praises of the ThinkPad range during his years at NeXT, and even for a short time after rejoining Apple in 1997, citing it as the kind of thing that Apple should be making. Certainly in this 1997 Apple keynote - in which new hire Jobs utterly demolishes then-CEO Gil Amelio and the naff 20th Anniversary Macintosh simply by standing next to them - the demo of OpenStep is carried out on a pair of ThinkPads, probably ThinkPad 560s (fast-forward to 23:00).
So, at the very least, Steve Jobs touched a ThinkPad at least once. When I touch my own ThinkPad, it's as if I'm touching Him. He obviously wasn't too fond of the austere design, though. When he returned to Apple, the company's top portable was the G3 Powerbook, which was an attractive machine but not nearly as distinctive as later Apple laptops. It was a curvaceous mass of dark back-bronze plastic that simultaneously looked distinctive (the curves and the illuminated Apple logo) and a bit bland (it was dark). Once Jobs got his hands back on Apple the company embraced postmodernism for its translucent, brightly-coloured iMacs and PowerMac desktops, and a kind of post-postmodern modernism for its clean, Ikea-esque PowerBook range, which was all silver metal or white plastic. In contrast, the modern ThinkPad still resembles the old ThinkPad - thinner, but fundamentally the same design language.
On a technical level the PowerBook range went through a surprisingly conservative upgrade path, and there were no real freaky oddball PowerBooks (the seashell-style G3 iBook excepted). In contrast the ThinkPad range was regularly shaken up with clever new ideas, as if IBM's engineers were desperate to express themselves and this was their one and only creative outlet. Which it probably was, because IBM's desktop PCs were extremely conservative designs at the time. Most of the innovations led nowhere, but at least they tried.
The Late IBM Thinkpad: The Ground is Still Warm to Touch
Until 1999 the Thinkpad range had a simple model naming strategy. The 700-series was at the high end; the 300-series was the cheaper, smaller range; the 500 and 600 were subnotebooks, and there was a super-cute 200-series subnotebook range that was sold only in the Far East. The odd ones out were generally flops or one-offs for the Far Eastern market; the cute PC110 was a tiny palmtop, the WorkPad Z50 was a short-lived Windows CE subnotebook that wasn't strictly a Thinkpad, although it was housed in a Thinkpad case, and the 800-series used PowerPC processors. IBM briefly sold rebadged Palm Pilots under the WorkPad brand, but apart from the black case and similar logo they were... they were just rebadged Palm Pilots.
From 1999-2000 IBM had a go at the hip young net-savvy consumer market with the i Series, which was an attempt to capture the mass-market with a cheaper, less boxy Thinkpad. This was the age of the letters e and i, lower-case. i Series machines were built by Acer, and resembled generic multimedia laptops of the era, with front-panel controls for the built-in CD drive so that you could use your new laptop to play your CDs of Jagged Little Pill and Tragic Kingdom.
An I Series 1400, from a Japanese advert
They were available in colours other than black - the 1400 models, for example, had a range of interchangeable multi-coloured lids, including "Eclipse Blue Metallic" and "Andromeda Green". Is Andromeda really green? Are eclipses blue? They're black, surely? On a technical level the i Series machines were Pentium-based and had special internet buttons above the keyboard that make me weep a little with nostalgia, because there are few things more 1999-y than special buttons that take you to a website. I quote from the press release:
"Four Easy Launch Buttons on the new IBM ThinkPad i Series directly connect users to the IBM/Lycos co-branded Web sites. ... The IBM/Lycos co-branded sites include a personal start page that provides users personalized news, weather and stock quotes, along with the unique ability to read e-mail, update their homepage, search, shop, or chat all from one place. In addition, IBM and Lycos provide an advanced search page; Internet shopping page; and a messaging page offering free e-mail provided by Lycos' MailCity."Of course those buttons will nowadays take you nowhere. Does Lycos still exist? (checks) Apparently so, although it looks like a holding page for something. According to Wikipedia it was sold in August 2012 for $36 million to Ybrant Digital, "an internet marketing company based in Hyderabad, India." Its previous owners, South Korean internet giant Daum, bought it in 2004 for $95 million. Which was nothing compared to the twelve point five billion dollars it had been sold for in 2000, to Spain's Terra Networks. This was during the twilight months of the dot.com boom, a period of irrational exuberance during which search engines and social networks were valued in the billions. Stupid sexy money.
Lycos' value over time, starting with its initial $2m venture capital funding in 1994, to the present day (although in reality the triangle would be a sawtooth)
The i Series is generally forgotten nowadays, but it introduced two things that were kept for future Thinkpads. The i1400 (1999) introduced the the ThinkLight, - a little light on the top of the screen bezel that shines down on the keyboard - and the very last i Series model of all, the i1300 (2000), introduced built-in 802.11b wireless networking. And thus the modern age. At the time wi-fi seemed an extravagance for the consumer market, because most people had one PC which was immobile. Along with ubiquitous high-speed internet access and 3G telephony, wi-fi is one of the things that separates our world from the dim and distant past of the 1990s.
My impression is that the i Series was a make-or-break attempt to challenge Dell and Compaq's stranglehold on the consumer market, and it didn't work. The i Series range was discontinued in 2001.
The pre-2000 Thinkpads are interesting antiques but not much use as computers nowadays. The most advanced models used Pentium III CPUs, with a maximum memory configuration of around half a gigabyte, which will run a no-frills installation of Windows XP but not very well. The most advanced of the early Thinkpads, the 600X, could take 576mb. As far as I can tell only the i1300 had integrated wi-fi; all the other pre-2000 ThinkPads would need a PCMCIA or USB wi-fi dongle, which in the latter case would tie up the single USB port. The date-and-time-keeping CMOS batteries will probably have died, and of course the machines have now spent over a decade up in the attic or in the back of a cupboard. And they've depreciated to a point where eBay's fees and the bother of postage are more than they are worth. Still, the early ones are interesting antiques, and the later ones are functional for simple web surfing with earlier versions of Firefox, and more than enough for the best version of Microsoft Word, which is of course 7.0/95. The ThinkPad 600X in the picture below managed to run Linux Mint 14 albeit not without quirks. Installation becomes a problem with modern versions of Linux - the machine only has a CD-ROM drive and can't boot from USB, so DVD-sized distributions are tricky.
A ThinkPad 600X running Puppy Linux
2000: The Black Hit of Space
At the turn of the millennium the Thinkpad range was consistently well-liked by the press and public alike, and also very popular. By 2000 IBM had sold ten million Thinkpads, with the 1998 Thinkpad 600 shipping two million units by itself. Is that good, or not? I have no idea; I would need to know how many laptops the competition sold during that period, and whether IBM wanted to compete in terms of volume or profit, and that kind of information is not available to me.
In the fourth quarter of 2000 IBM topped Dell by half a percentage point on the worldwide laptop sales charts, and throughout the year it dominated sales to the Fortune 500 market, handily beating its major competitor, Toshiba. With the laptop market expanding rapidly it took IBM only three years to sell the next ten million, although by that time it had dipped to third place. By this time the company had pulled out of the retail market, and sold the ThinkPad range directly to consumers via its website.
The Thinkpad 770Z, the last of the bento boxes
For 2000 IBM revamped the line, and introduced a new set of names. The machines were generally slimmed down, too; the last classically boxy Thinkpad was the top-of-the-line 770Z of 1999, after which the cases developed curves. The new range divided into the high-end A-series, the ultraportable X, the standard T, and the budget R, which were essentially the T-models in a plastic case.
From 2003 onwards IBM started to base the machines around the Pentium M mobile CPU, and overall the 2000-2004 models are still useful today for basic tasks. They have built-in wi-fi and are fast enough to run Windows XP, at the very least, and the A-series Thinkpads are particularly desirable for their 15", 1600x1200 screens. I skip over them in one paragraph because they were, for the most part, much of a muchness; the PC laptop had reached its final form. The only distinctive model from the period was the G40, a 4kg behemoth built around a full-sized and no doubt very warm 2.4ghz Pentium 4.
The X and T range are still sold today, but not by IBM. IBM doesn't sell PCs at all any more, either desktops or laptops. IBM sold off a lot of the PC hardware stuff - the keyboards, printers etc - in 1991, the desktop business went in 2002, and as mentioned before the ThinkPad brand is now owned by Lenovo. IBM has left the building, and they aren't coming back.
It wasn't unexpected. Even in the late 1990s there had been talk of IBM cutting their losses and leaving the PC market. Quoth the New York Times from October 1999:
"The company's market share has fallen behind those of Compaq and Dell, and it has not made a profit on PC's in at least four years. Indeed, I.B.M.'s PC unit lost nearly $1 billion last year and $311 million so far this year. ... All this raises a bigger question: Should it get out of the PC business altogether? I.B.M. certainly does have other business lines that are profitable and growing, like software, semiconductors and computer services. And it is pursuing these even at the risk of humiliating its own PC unit."The PC business continued to lose money - slightly less, but still hundreds of millions - in the years leading up to its eventual sale. IBM on the whole was profitable; it made around $7.7bn in 1999, and a similar figure a year later. The PC business was however a money sink, a highly visible one, albeit that the Thinkpad range did well. The company had been through hard times before, famously losing $5bn in 1993, and had been on the verge of splitting into little bits. But under the command of new CEO Lou Gerstner it had turned itself around, by ruthlessly getting rid of anything that was a drain, and concentrating on the boring old profitable old stuff. Mainframes, tape storage, low-volume high-margin stuff that needed continual support, that sort of thing. Gerstner took one look at the desktop PC business and saw clearly that the future of the PC did not belong to IBM, so he decided to get rid of it.
And so in 2002 the company sold the desktop PC production business to relative nobodies Sanmina-SCI, in a deal worth $5bn. Under Sanmina, IBM's PC manufacturing infrastructure - which was spread across the world - was consolidated and moved to Hungary, but Sanmina never managed to make the business profitable, and so it was split into bits and sold in 2008 to Foxconn and Lenovo for $90m. Ironically this meant that Lenovo eventually ended up with IBM's entire PC operation, and nowadays it sells the genetic descendants of the original IBM PC as its ThinkCentre range.
IBM eventually sold the ThinkPad range to Lenovo in 2005, after lengthy negotiations. At the time ThinkPads were made in IBM's factories in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Greenock in Scotland, as well as Shenzhen in China, which is just across the border from Hong Kong. Under the terms of the deal production was shifted exclusively to Shenzhen, with IBM's Greenock facility eventually closing.
Silicon Glen no more
IBM's exit from the PC business and the sale of its operation to the Far East provoked a certain amount of anguish in the US. It was reminiscent of a brief period in the 1980s when Japanese businesses seemed poised to take over the world. IBM was an American icon, and the sale seemed like an admission of defeat, or alternatively yet another act of class warfare perpetuated by the Bilderberg conspiracy against the working man. The fact of China being ostensibly a Communist country did not go down well with the fringe, or for that matter the US government. "Members of the committee on foreign investments in the US are worried that China could use an IBM manufacturing plant in North Carolina to engage in industrial espionage, passing stolen secrets to the military", reported The Guardian in January 2005. Years later, IBM admitted that the sale was at least partly political, as a means of impressing the Chinese leadership, knowledge of which would have not gone down too well at the time.
On the other hand, times have changed since the 1980s. Everything is now made in China, and it is generally accepted that IBM got out of an ailing market sector at the right time. Its competitors in the industry in 2004 have had mixed fortunes since then and face a challenging future. Hewlett-Packard is now the top-selling PC manufacturer worldwide, but has been beset with problems, and came close to selling off its PC arm in late 2011. Dell has dropped to third place, and with several years of sluggish PC sales there is persistent talk of a "post-PC era" in which the real money is made from services and subscriptions. Of the American personal computer giants, only Apple seems to have thrived in recent years, with a tightly-controlled combination of hardware and online services.
In another world, a much crueller world, Lenovo would have taken the ThinkPad name and put it on generic black laptops sold at a slightly higher price point than the otherwise-identical Lenovo-branded models. Alternatively, the company's market share would have tanked in 2005 and the Thinkpad brand would have been sold on to the idiot son of a Russian billionaire, or something along those lines. In practice Lenovo didn't mess around. The company didn't just buy the ThinkPad name, they bought the people as well, including the design team and part of IBM's Yamato research and development facility. David Hill and Tomoyuki Takahashi, who had been with the design team since the 1990s, still work on the Thinkpad range today. David Hill even writes a regularly-updated blog. Richard Sapper continues to consult for Lenovo.
The Modern Age: You Never Go Back
Ultimately the sale appears to have been a great success. Over subsequent years Lenovo ousted Dell as the second-most-popular PC seller, and as I write these words they are either number one or a very close second behind a wobbling HP, depending on whose figures you believe.
IBM, meanwhile, made a profit of $14.8bn in 2010, and in October 2011 the company briefly had a higher market capitalisation than Microsoft, albeit that this was only for one day. Nonetheless the company remains a global titan, although I imagine that most people would struggle to identify what IBM actually does. IBM does not make tablet computers or mobile phones and it is not a search engine. You can't drink IBM or put IBMs on your feet. You do not drive to work in an IBM. On the other hand if you want to process a huge amount of data and archive it securely, and access it globally, and you don't know how, one of the men and women of IBM would love to talk to you. I imagine the company's adventure in the PC world must now seem like an odd dream.
Lenovo and IBM had been working together for over a year before the sale, and debate rages as to the last true IBM Thinkpad launched before the two firms started to collaborate. Lenovo's first post-IBM product was the 2005 Thinkpad X41 Tablet, a reworking of IBM's X41 ultraportable, with a swivelling screen. The company was quiet for the last half of 2005, but 2006 saw some a batch of launches based around the new Intel Core Duo, including the X60 ultraportable mentioned way up there in the introduction. The X60's business counterpart was the larger T60, and they were among the last ThinkPads sold with a 4:3-type display. In 2007 the T60 was updated with a Core II Duo and became the the T61, which was generally sold with a widescreen display, and from that point onwards Thinkpads were widescreen-only.
The Core Duo was one of Intel's most significant CPU designs of the 2000s. In desktop form it was cheaper, faster, and cooler than the company's earlier Pentium 4, despite running at a slower clock speed. It brought multi-core computing to the mainstream, and was such a clever design that Apple decided to adopt it as well. The first Core Duo Macbooks were launched within a few months of the X60, and have a very similar specification; my X60 has exactly the same 1.83ghz Core Duo as the first, entry-level MacBook. It even has the same Intel graphics processor. Later in the year Intel launched the faster, 64-bit capable Core II Duo, which was swiftly adopted by Apple and Lenovo.
As of 2012, Core Duo and Core II Duo laptops are two generations old, but the chip has aged well. The X60 and X61 - and for that matter the early MacBooks - remain capable machines, especially when the stock memory is expanded.
Lenovo's acquisition of the brand predated the netbook boom by a year or so, and there was never a netbook Thinkpad. The closest was probably the X100e of 2010, which used an AMD processor in a form factor that Lenovo described as an "affordable ultraportable notebook". The magazines were generally unimpressed with the processor and relatively weak battery life, and Lenovo went back to using Intel processors instead.
Modern ThinkPads come with Lenovo's ThinkVantage software suite, which was based on IBM's earlier Access IBM software. Most new laptops sold to the consumer market are loaded with shovelware - useless applications and demos that slow the computer down and are often difficult to remove - but Lenovo's ThinkVantage software is generally benign, occasionally clever. The battery manager, for example, is more sophisticated than Windows' own battery tool; it shows the total number of battery cycles and the date of manufacture, and can be set to extend the battery's lifespan by charging it less intensively. The Active Protection System monitors the hard drive for sudden motion, and shuts it down in order to prevent damage, and most modern Thinkpads also include a fingerprint reader that can be used instead of Windows' standard password entry screen. On a personal level I'm sceptical of fingerprint readers - what if the thieves chop off your fingers? - but I have to admit that the idea is powerfully attractive. Beyond that, Thinkpads do not come with preinstalled demo versions of Insaniquarium Deluxe or Norton Online Backup or Bonbon Quest or anything with Easy in the name or trials of anything, and hopefully never will.
From 2007 Lenovo shifted to three-digit model names. The X61 was followed by the faster X200, which was very popular and is another good buy on the used market. It so popular that it inspired a Chinese clone, which emerged a couple of years later; the clone was the spitting image of the original, complete with ThinkPad logo, but internally it was based around a low-power Intel Atom, making it much closer to a netbook in terms of performance.
Under Lenovo the ThinkPad's industrial design has gradually evolved in in a thinner, less boxy direction, although the machines are still very distinctive. Not so much for the shape, but the matt black case; the trend throughout the 2000s was a brushed aluminium look borrowed from Apple, and the few black laptops - such as the short-lived VoodooPC range - tended to have glossy cases. The X200 had slightly naff speakers designed into the screen bezel and the consumer-orientated Edge range has a silvery metallic strip around its periphery, but otherwise ThinkPads are still instantly recognisable.
The Edge is one of two low-cost Thinkpad brands, alongside the SL range. Lenovo also sells laptops under the IdeaPad brand, which slot into the gaps in the Thinkpad range. The IdeaPad Y series, for example, has a big screen and is aimed at the home entertainment crowd, whereas the nearest Thinkpad equivalent, the W series, also has a big screen but is very expensive and aimed squarely at graphic designers.
In 2010 Lenovo announced total sales of sixty million ThinkPads since the range began. The ThinkPad brand continues today, most recently with the carbon fibre ThinkPad X1, and the ThinkPad Twist, an ultrabook with a screen that swivels around and lies flat on the keyboard, turning it into a tablet. The same basic idea dates back to the ThinkPad X41t of 2004, although the Twist is thinner and has a screen that can be manipulated with a finger rather than a stylus. It still has the little red TrackPoint nib, the distinctive raised mouse buttons, the diagonal ThinkPad logo, all housed in a handsome matt black case. The screen could have a higher resolution - at 1366x768 it's not a huge advance on my six-year-old, 1024x768 ThinkPad X60 - but apart from that it's exactly the kind of thing IBM would have sold as a ThinkPad today, if IBM still sold ThinkPads.
Did the sale hurt the ThinkPad brand? It's impossible to tell, but I can't imagine how IBM would have done things differently. Long-term ThinkPad fans moaned at the sudden, universal shift to widescreen displays, but ThinkPads continue to sell. Some models sport a "chicklet"-style keyboard, but not all, and Lenovo's implementation is no worse than the competition. If the pace of technical innovation in the ThinkPad range has slowed down, it's because the pace of innovation in the laptop world in general has slowed down. The Wild West has been tamed, and in any case most of the innovations mentioned earlier in the article led nowhere; the folding keyboard, in particular, only appeared in two models, which were on the market for only a year. Even so, the ThinkPad team is not resting on its laurels. The recent W701ds, for example, has a built-in second screen in portrait orientation that slides out from behind the main display, and a digitising tablet built into the handwrist. It's faintly ridiculous, but Apple has nothing like it and that's what matters.
In the current range the X220 boasts dual drive bays - one for a tiny boot SSD, the second for a conventional hard drive - and a special "slice" external battery that can boost the runtime to an advertised twenty-four hours. All of this is housed in an ultraportable case with a specification that's otherwise state of the art. It has attracted positive reviews and if Lenovo wants to send me one to write about, I will not refuse. The equally-well-received X1 Carbon combines the desktop-bothering specification of the X220 with a 14" screen and stuffs it into a case that weighs the same as a 13" Macbook Air. Twenty years on, the ThinkPad range is still going strong.
The Tablets: They've Got to Catch Me if they Want Me to Hang
Look, they're references to songs that have "black" in them, capisce? I got the idea from An American Werewolf in London, the classic John Landis horror comedy from the early 1980s. It has a soundtrack of pop hits that all have "moon" in the title.
It's a good job that John Landis didn't try to make a historical drama about the Schleswig-Holstein Problem. He would have had to find pop hits that mentioned the Schleswig-Holstein Problem in the lyrics. There aren't many. The Beatles' "Bad Mr Bismark" and Joni Mitchell's "In Jutland (They Kiss)" and that's about it. Leonard Cohen's "Ramifications of the Treaty of Ribe" touches on the problem but doesn't deal with it explicitly.
To the tablets. Gotta have a drink, I've been standing up for ninety minutes now. The very first ThinkPad was actually a pen-driven tablet computer. It was named after the leather notepads that IBM gave to its employees, which had the corporate logo - "think" - engraved on the front. The 700T, as it was eventually called, was based around a low-power version of the 386, with a 640x480 monochrome screen, four or eight megabytes of memory, and 20mb of solid state storage. This was divided into two blocks of 10mb, one for the operating system and the second for files. At just under $5,000 it was roughly $500 more expensive than the range-topping Thinkpad laptop, and apparently sold only a few hundred units. It was originally shipped with Go Corporation's PenPoint OS, but later releases came with IBM PenDOS, and presumably most of them ended up running Windows 3.1, which had support for pen-driven applications via Windows for Pen Computing.
Pen-driven tablets were all the rage in the early 1990s. The Newton MessagePad was by far the most famous - or infamous, because its handwriting recognition was the butt of many jokes. Apart from IBM's 700T, there was also the Fujitsu DecisionPoint range, which began with the Windows-based 325 Point (1993), which was powered with a 25mhz 386SX. The company followed it the next year with the Stylistic. Fuji still uses the Stylistic range for its modern Android tablets, although they no longer use a stylus. Back when they were actually PCs, they were aimed squarely at the government and healthcare market, and apparently sold quite well.
They have mobile phones in Tunisia. They are people like us.
Grandaddy of the lot was the GRiD Systems' GRiDPAD, which was launched in 1989. By 1992 GRiD boasted sales of ten thousand units in their adverts, which wasn't bad going at roughly $3,000 a pop, although it sounds somewhat ridiculous nowadays (in late 2011 Apple was estimated to be selling 121,000 iPads per day). Also, whoever decided to capitalise GRiD that way should be given a good telling-off. It's bad enough having to write ThinkPad all the time. GRiD is worse.
The Thinkpad 360P, a convertible tablet
IBM's original tablet-based Thinkpads seem to have had no impact at all on the market or society or anything really. The range expanded in 1994 with the 486-based 710T, and died the next year with the DX/4 730TE. Along with those two machines IBM also sold the 750P and 360P, which were generally conventional 486-based Thinkpads with stylus-enabled screens that could fold over onto the keyboard, turning them into (very bulky) tablets. Again, they attracted favourite reviews, but failed to usher in the age of pen-driven computing that IBM and its competitors were convinced was just around the corner. The 360P was actually slightly cheaper than the equivalent, non-transforming 360C, although at just over $4,000 it was still a few hundred dollars more expensive than faster machines from Toshiba, for example. And it must be said that $4,000 would have bought you a lot of paper notebooks and ballpoint pens back in 1994. The tablet range ground to a halt in 1995 and remained dormant throughout the rest of the IBM era.
Tablets themselves didn't die out, although it always seemed that the manufacturers were far more enthusiastic about them than consumers. In the early 2000s Microsoft decided to have a go, and in 2002 the company launched a tablet-optimised version of Windows XP. It featured handwriting recognition and easy switching between portrait and landscape screens. Looking back from the perspective of 2012, the emphasis on handwriting recognition seems odd. Microsoft's launch blurb opens with a brief history of handwriting and uses the words handwriting and handwritten and pen over and over again. The irony is that now tablets are vastly popular, no-one writes on them; people use virtual keyboards instead. I can remember taking notes with a pen and paper, when I was young, and I hated it. I wanted a laptop so that I could type, not fiddle around with a pen. I hate handwriting.
It took ages to write that and in the end I just got bored. If I'd had access to a computer at school I would probably have got better grades. Anyway, "...it was their first Thinkpad product, a tablet version of IBM's ultraportable X41. They were both Pentium M machines and had a similar specification, although the X41 tablet had a stylus-compatible screen and was heavier and slightly more expensive. The screen was connected to the base with a single, centrally-located rotating hinge, and the machine could be converted into a tablet by rotating the screen all the way around and folding it down over the keys. Unlike modern tablets it was supposed to be held like a large clipboard rather than a paperback book. The hardware design was sleek, and it remains quite attractive to this day. Attractive, and a bit pointless." Reason being that even though it resembles a pad of A4 paper, it's still as thick and heavy as a laptop.
Lenovo updated the tablets in parallel with the ultraportable range. The X41t was followed by the X60t and X61t, for example, which were otherwise the same as the regular X60 and X61, but with a low-power CPU. Did they sell? I have no idea. A fair amount pop up on eBay. Based on the reviews and my own personal judgement I suspect that most people who bought them used them as conventional laptops, with the tablet mode as a clever gimmick to be used infrequently and eventually never. Lenovo persisted with the concept, following the X61 with the X200t. Around about that time a curious thing happened. After three decades of sitting on the launchpad, dreaming about going into space, the tablet market finally did just that. It went into space.*
Which is ironic, because ThinkPads had been into space for real, as early as 1993, when NASA astronauts took one up in the shuttle Endeavour. Dozens of Thinkpads were used on subsequent shuttle missions and the Mir space station, and modern Thinkpads are used on the ISS. In 1997 four of the 750Cs on board Mir were exposed to the vacuum of space when the Spektr module was hit by a supply ship. One of them was later retrieved whilst the crew were scavenging for bits; although the machine no longer booted up, the hard drive still worked, and astronaut Michael Foale was able to transfer useful data to a second ThinkPad that had been in another part of the station. The broken machine was subsequently sent back to Earth for investigation, and was apparently repaired. I have no idea what happened to it subsequently.
* Revising this in 2014 I can't tell if I was trying to make a subtle reference to the "Poland cannot into space" Polandball meme, or the Space Core from Portal II. Or Kerbal Space Programme, which existed in 2012 albeit that it was pretty obscure.
The Cross Bones Graveyard, London
Microsoft's attempts to push the tablet market in 2002 and 2005 came to nothing, so with Intel's help they tried again in 2006, with the Ultra Mobile PC concept, which also failed to catch on as well. The machines tended to resemble games consoles, but were expensive, hovering around $800 or so. Their launch coincided with the onset of a global recession, and they were totally overshadowed by netbooks.
A year later Apple launched the iPhone. It was a mobile phone with a full-face touchscreen. It could send and receive emails and text messages, and also download applications. And it could be used for point-to-point voice communications, although in practice nobody bothered with this. Sales were surprisingly sluggish to start with, but everyone who bought an iPhone showed it off to their friends, who saw that it was good, and bought one too. The sleek design was classless and appealed to young and old, rich and poor alike. In 2008 Apple launched their application download store, through which developers could sell software to iPhone owners. UMPC and early tablet owners had to hunt for tablet-optimised applications, or restrict themselves to a handful of bundled packages; iPhone owners could find a wealth of software designed specifically for their iPhone just by tapping the screen a couple of times. Admittedly, most iPhone applications were silly things, but Apple's tight control ensured that they at least worked, even if they just showed a picture and played a sound. And like ringtones before them, the silly little nothings soon became big business. Mighty oaks from little acorns, that sort of thing.
It didn't take much to imagine a larger iPhone without the telephone, and in 2010 Apple launched the iPad tablet. It was very popular, apparently selling more in its first few months than all tablet PCs before it, and it continues to sell. Against this backdrop Microsoft took the brave step of optimising its newest version of Windows, Windows 8, for touch-screen devices rather than desktop machines. As I write these words Windows 8 was released a week ago (here's my take). Microsoft envisages it being used on a mixture of pure tablets, convertible laptop-tablets, and traditional mouse-driven desktop machines. It will be fascinating to see what effect it has on the computing industry.
Although Windows 8 is intended for large screens, it will run at 1024x768 with a few minor limitations. This raises the possibility of installing it on Lenovo's early convertible tablets, particularly the X60t and X61t. They were originally sold with XP's Tablet Edition, and latterly Windows Vista, but Windows 8 would be a perfect fit. For the value conscious among us a decent used X61t would be the cheapest way to get a mostly-fully-functional Windows 8 tablet PC. Lenovo is in the interesting position of selling all three of Windows 8's target form factors - it has a dedicated Thinkpad Tablet in addition to the X230 Convertible and the regular Thinkpads. Charmingly the Thinkpad Tablet's stylus has a bright red "eraser" that looks a bit like a Trackpoint.
The laptop market has changed greatly over the last twenty years, even over the last half a decade. I can remember the shock I felt when I first saw laptops on sale in the local Tesco - where ordinary people could buy them. Most laptops are pretty indistinguishable from each other, warmed-over reference designs churned out by Taiwanese manufacturing giant Quanta Computer. The Thinkpad range is an exception, perhaps the only one. The unusually consistent design language can be traced all the way back to 1992, a time when few PC manufacturers had considered putting money into the look of their products. Sony's stylish Vaio range began in 1997, but its design language has never been consistent; early Vaios were purple, modern Vaios resemble aluminium Macbooks. Apple's own laptops have gone through four different design phases since then, six if you count the budget models, and on a technological level modern MacBooks have nothing in common with the original PowerBooks. They're totally different computers, separated from each other by three different processor families and two completely different operating systems.
Consistent design is not, by itself, a laudable goal. East Germany's Trabant motorcar was a smoke-belching slowcoach in 1957 and remained so for the next thirty years, to the dismay of East Germans and also trees and the environment. The key to the Thinkpad's appeal was that its modest exterior housed some of the smartest and most powerful innards around, and both IBM and Lenovo seemed to care about the range. IBM's pre-ThinkPad laptops were sub-average and sold entirely on the strength of the IBM badge; with the Thinkpad, IBM created a brand strong enough to outlast IBM's involvement in the PC business. Under Lenovo the ThinkPad seems to be in good hands. Long may it continue.
On a personal level I was drawn to the Thinkpad range by the incredibly good used price/performance/toughness ratio. They were sold in huge quantities to businesses, who regularly get rid of them. For music applications the deciding factor is raw CPU horsepower, and any of the Core Duos are capable of running complex arrangements in Audiomulch and Ableton. The cheapest used Intel Macintoshes are £400 or more, and I'm unwilling to buy a used Dell or HP anything. The 2007 X61 in particular occupies a sweet spot on the used market, as of late 2012. They can take up to 8gb of memory, parts are still available, and they're physically well-made. And small - with a four-cell battery the X61 isn't much larger or heavier than my Asus Eee 1005HA, which has a smaller screen and is much slower.
The legendary Thinkpad reliability is quite possibly a myth - various surveys place Lenovo either in the middle or near the bottom or near the top of the pile - but my X61 certainly feels tough, and of course I can replace most of the things that go wrong. MacBooks are notoriously hostile to tinkerers.
And that is that. When I embarked on this writeup I didn't realise that the ThinkPad brand was almost exactly twenty years old. It was launched in early October 1992. If only I'd started writing this a fortnight earlier! The ThinkPad range is unusually well-documented on the internet, presumably because it's one of only two or three PC laptop brands that anyone has ever cared about (the others being Sony's Vaio range, and... (fill in later)). I'm eternally indebted to the ThinkPad Wiki, which was packed with useful information, and also Google Books, which has scans of old computer magazines.