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Lenovo's Design Ambitions

Can computer maker Lenovo's next design win come from IBM's trash can? That's putting it harshly, but don't be surprised to see Lenovo introduce products based partly on designs IBM never used.

"There are many ideas we have on the shelves which at IBM we never chose to move forward on. We are reevaluating many of those," David Hill, Lenovo's director of design, told internetnews.com.

Hill is intimately familiar with which design ideas did and didn't pass muster at IBM. For nearly 20 years he was director of design at IBM, overlooking every new version of Big Blue's ThinkPad notebook, ThinkCentre desktops and other products. The ThinkPad has won over 100 industrial design awards since its 1992 introduction and is even in the Museum of Modern Art.

China-based Lenovo Group announced the purchase of IBM's PC and notebook computer business late last year in a $1.25 billion deal completed this Spring. With the purchase tacked onto Lenovo's existing computer business, the company quickly vaulted to the number three provider of PC makers worldwide. But Hill said it's a mistake to think Lenovo will be focused on volume sales at the expense of distinctiveness.

"We're certainly not about making the cheapest computers," Hill said. "Design at Lenovo is, if anything, more important than it was at IBM. It's a core element of our brand strategy."

Heading the list of big name brands Lenovo inherited is IBM's best-selling ThinkPad, the notebook long hailed for its innovative features.

"The design concept is of simple black box that's a fully functional notebook with a surprise inside," said Hill.

An example of a "surprise" in newer models is that the ThinkPad's become far more svelte at one-inch thickness versus the heavier two inches at its debut.

Other touches added over the years include a night light for viewing the screen in the dark and a large-text option from within any application. Both are activated by a few keystroke combinations.

In sports there's an adage that sometimes the best trades are the ones never made. Perhaps the most significant decision on the ThinkPad's design was the path not taken. Hill said there have been a lot of design ideas that proved valuable even if they weren't implemented.

"Sometimes we push the envelope because we have to understand where we need to be," said Hill. "Where is the edge of 'ThinkPadness'? It's easy to paint a computer lime green; it's far more difficult to design something which has lasting value and an intrinsic advantage."

ThinkPad has been black from the first model, a time when most desktops were off-white and a grey metallic look was more popular for notebooks. Later Apple made a splash with its multi-colored iMacs, and some PC vendors followed suit with different color models. ThinkPad stuck with black, a classic look "rediscovered" in some of the hottest consumer electronics today from video game systems to cell phones like Motorola's Razr.

"We try to transcend trends," said Hill. "You will never look bad in a business meeting with a dark suit or dark briefcase or a ThinkPad."

Hill did say Lenovo is not ruling out colors in the future, but that would likely be for products aimed at different markets.

Integrated PCs with the monitor built-in, are another design option that seems to surface every few years. Apple's first Macintosh and subsequent models have integrated the display. Less successfully, Gateway and others on the PC side tried it. IBM's Netvista X40 and 41 sported an integrated flat panel display.

"It's an interesting way to make a space saving computer," said Hill. But while the display remained relatively state-of- the-art, the computer, from a processor and storage standpoint, became quickly outdated and a poor investment choice.

A challenge for Lenovo is to innovate but not lose its core buyer. Over the years IBM was never a price leader, though certainly corporate buyers got discounts. Still, the allure was the brand name and feeling of security that came with an IBM purchase. Lenovo is largely unknown to corporate America.

Hill said the company will be careful to maintain if not expand the reputation of the IBM products now under its control. He recalls as a guiding example, a difficult decision a few years ago to replace the cap on the TrackPoint cursor control, considered revolutionary when it shipped on the first ThinkPad.

The problem was the eraser shaped device could fall off. Also, IBM had developed models using better materials and more precise control, but wasn't sure which one was best to include. Hill compares it to trying to sell the perfect athletic shoe -- an almost impossible task since some are better for a specific sport than others.

IBM's solution, to keep with the sports metaphor, was to punt and not assume it knew the best choice for its customers. The company ships each ThinkPad with a built-in TrackPoint cursor designed to suit most needs and two replacements with different levels of precision that are easy to snap on and try.

"At Lenovo it's about a synergistic play between form and function," said Hill. "The aesthetic doesn't dominate over ease of use."