ThinkPad’s Legacy Design, and Why it Persists
One of the reasons why ThinkPad enthusiasts continue to stick with Lenovo’s laptop line is because it remains true to its original black-box design, which made it famous under its creator, IBM. The ThinkPad just celebrated its 25th anniversary over the summer, so let’s look at what parts of the design have stuck over a quarter century.
One of the most iconic features now infamously synonymous with the black, business laptops is that bright red TrackPoint. The ThinkPad screens now incorporate touch, the body has gotten thinner, and the trackpads have gotten much better — yet the TrackPoint remains.
Lenovo’s chief design officer David Hill told Tech Radar that the TrackPoint is still included with every new design not just because they are adhering to the interests of its most loyal customer base. He believes they serve a legitimate function as it allows you to keep your hands on the home row of the keyboard whenever you need to move the cursor. However, while he provides an analogy of the TrackPoint comparing it to a stick shift in a car, he admits that its appeal remains to a limited crowd: as if you know how to drive a stick shift, you don’t want/need to drive an automatic transmission car, and if you’ve never learned to drive a stick shift, you’re not going to buy a car with a manual transmission. “Some people get it and some people don’t; some people acquire the taste,” he told the tech site.
From a branding standpoint, the TrackPoint is an identifier that defines a ThinkPad. Removing it would create a huge ripple in the ThinkPad community, and as it’s easy to ignore if you love ThinkPad but hate the TrackPoint, it’s certainly worth keeping on the keyboard.
If you’re in the mood for a TrackPoint throwback when it was called only an “in-keyboard analog pointing device”, check out this IBM video from 1990 where the tech giant made its original “case” for the feature while still in development:
So, what else remains from the original, beloved design?
The color and logo placement is the most obvious. Some may appreciate the no-frills black paint on the device, which IBM probably aimed for as a serious design for a serious work environment. The original ThinkPad also didn’t have a color monitor, CD Drive, or speakers – and at the time, IBM said they would never incorporate those features into a commercial desktop because people didn’t need these things at work, according to Hill. But they still fleshed out the technology in the consumer market, and when it was needed in the commercial environment, it was easy to incorporate. As for the logo, it remains the only laptop brand that puts its logo in the corner of the design, rather than the center. Initially, this was due to the boxy nature of the original design. At this point, said Hill, why change it?
In 1992, IBM brought three ThinkPad models to the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, where the 700c took off as a crowd favorite offering power in a compact design that had never before been seen. At $4,350, the ThinkPad had a removable hard drive, a front-loading floppy disk for users in constrained spaces (like airplanes), and incredible horse power. PC Computing named it as its Most Valuable Product of the year because of “its combination of speed, beauty, hard-nosed practicality, and yes, grace.”
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