The ThinkPad is 25 years old. The first ThinkPad may not have been the first laptop, but it was the first with a colour display. Along the way, there's been a swathe of pioneering innovations — the first CD and DVD, the first Wi-Fi, the first laptop into space.
I spoke to Lenovo's travelling evangelist, senior analyst and laptop guru Kevin Beck on the history and the future of the ThinkPad — including whether keyboards will be replaced by voice or touchscreen, and how the fundamental design of a laptop might change in the years to come.
Lenovo's ThinkPads have evolved in many ways since the mid-'90s, but they haven't changed all that much on the exterior. What would you say defines a ThinkPad visually?
"The ThinkPad is known the world-over for its black exterior and red TrackPoint, which fans love. It was originally inspired by the Japanese bento box and while the early ThinkPad’s were heavy, bulky machines, today they have evolved into much lighter, slimmer models.
"The classic, iconic design of the ThinkPad is often recognised alongside the likes of design-icons such as Porsche and Levis – brands that have evolved with the times but stayed true to their design roots.
"Exterior appearances aside, what really defines the ThinkPad is its 25-year heritage of delivering innovation and efficiency for users everywhere. Everything about the ThinkPad has a purpose. It is simple and as visually clean and as elegant as possible. Ultimately it’s a tool, not a toy."
How do you see the ThinkPad evolving in the next 25 years? Will traditional laptops -- screen, keyboard, trackpad, TrackPoint -- remain popular with mainstream or power users?
"The rate of change is always perceived to be accelerating but we need to combine what we think about the future with what has happened in the past 25 years. What we know is this; the screen, keyboard, trackpad and TrackPoint are not going anywhere fast.
"For the last 25 years, all of these features have remained key to the design and functionality of the ThinkPad, and we expect they will remain fundamental in years to come."
We've seen the rise of the tablet, and touchscreen keyboards getting better and better. Is there always going to be a place for a good old fashioned keyboard?
"It has remained the case for the last 25 years that the traditional keyboard has been the best way to take down thoughts and turn them into productive output.
"While keyboards might change -- they may be touchscreen, flexible or pop-up -- we still believe the keyboard feature will remain fundamental in laptop and tablet design for some time."
And here's some stats and facts, as well as a timeline, from Lenovo:
25 years of ThinkPad innovation
- 1992 – ThinkPad 700C may not have been the first laptop, but it was the first with a color TFT display
- 1993 – ThinkPad 750C is the first ThinkPad in space
- 1994 – ThinkPad 755CD, first laptop with integrated CD-ROM
- 1997 – ThinkPad 770, first laptop with integrated DVD-ROM
- 1999 – ThinkPad 570, first laptop with removable docking base
- 2000 – ThinkPad i1300, first laptop with built-in wireless
- 2000 – ThinkPad breaks 10 million sales barrier
- 2001 – ThinkPad becomes first with embedded security chip
- 2003 – ThinkPad T, first laptop with Active Protection System
- 2004 – ThinkPad becomes first laptop with fingerprint reader
- 2005 – Lenovo acquires IBM PC Division
- 2006 – ThinkPad X41, first laptop designed entirely under Lenovo’s ownership
- 2008 – ThinkPad X300, thinnest and lights fully-functional 13 inch laptop, dubbed “Perfect Laptop” by Business Week
- 2009 – ThinkPad W700ds becomes first dual-screen mobile workstation
- 2011 – Lenovo launches its first ThinkPad Tablet
- 2012 – Lenovo unveils world’s lightest 14 inch ultrabook, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon
- 2012 – ThinkPad is 20 Years Old
- 2014 – ThinkPad breaks 100 million sales barrier
- 2016 – ThinkPad X1 Yoga, first business laptop with OLED display
- 2017 – ThinkPad is 25
25 Facts About The ThinkPad
- The original design inspiration, from Richard Sapper, for the ThinkPad was the Japanese bento box.
- The name “ThinkPad” was inspired by pocket notepads, embossed with the motto “Think” on the front, once issued to all IBM employees
- Red Trackpoint color is officially “Magenta” to bypass IBM “emergency power off” safety standards
- Every ThinkPad model has an internal code name. The 700C was “Nectarine”, the 701C was “Butterfly”.
- The formal name of the butterfly keyboard in the 701C is the “TrackWrite” keyboard.
- You can see a ThinkPad 701C in the Museum of Modern Art.
- The first disclosed ThinkPad was in fact the 700T tablet in April 1992, but was launched alongside the 700 and 700C in October of that year.
- That original ThinkPad 700C had a 25Mhz processor. 2017 ThinkPad models have up to 2.8Ghz, 112 times faster in raw power with almost 7000 times the number of transistors.
- In 1993, IBM produced the ThinkPad 555BJ with a built-in Bubble Jet printer.
- IBM also introduced a 755CDV with which the back of the screen could be removed and the laptop placed on an overhead projector, for those who remember what an OHP is!
- The rubber used for the original TrackPoint cap was a grade and type used in roller coaster wheels.
- The rubber pads underneath ThinkPad laptops to stop it sliding around are based on cats paws.
- Carbon fiber in the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is not the first. Some Carbon fiber composite was used in ThinkPad as far back as 1992.
- In the late 1990’s, IBM launched PowerPC versions running IBM AIX. These were the ThinkPad 800 series.
- "Owl-wing fans" actually resulted from research of the quiet function of Japanese bullet trains. The fan shape is inspired by the shape of owl feathers.
- ThinkPad is not actually the oldest laptop brand. Toshiba introduced the Dynabook in 1989. The brand still exists today in Japan. Texas Instruments introduced the Travelmate in 1990. Now owned by Acer, it is still in use today.
- The first laptop in space was in fact the Grid Compass, but ThinkPad revolutionized the way astronauts works in space.
- If you lined up the number of ThinkPads in the world, it would circle the Earth.
- In 2017, Lenovo implemented a new low temperature soldering process. Started in ThinkPad manufacturing, the process will save up to 35% on annual carbon emissions.
- The new ThinkPad X1 Carbon is 3.5 times thinner and 4 pounds lighter than the original 700C.
- The ThinkPad logo is positioned asymmetrically by design. Dead-center is boring!
- By 2014, ThinkPad had sold 100 million units. The 100 millionth was called Eve.
- Most ThinkPad laptops pass Mil-Spec tests to ensure long-term durability.
- Hardcore ThinkPad fan Atli Jarl Martin has the ThinkPad logo tattooed on his forearm.
- ThinkPad will celebrate its 50th birthday on Sunday 5th October 2042.
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