NEW YORK — Amidst the hollowed halls and exhibition floor of the Jacob Javits Center here, one beacon of innovation shone brightly at the TechXNY trade show. At a time when even the show’s keynote speakers failed to generate headlines, IBM showed off the might of its design savoir-faire akin to the European assault on the Big Three automakers by German designers and engineer.
With two radically new redesigns serving as prototypes, IBM has been trying to gauge the reactions of customers, partners, analysts and journalists around the globe just like how automakers use the same venue (only filled out a bit more) every Spring with dealers, trade press and car enthusiasts. The goal is the same: hoping to gain a new understanding on just how the 10-year-old ThinkPad might evolve in terms of its design. If nothing else, the new designs underscore the current trend of how the lines between the desktops and notebooks have started to blur.
That convergence has been demonstrated in the last few weeks by companies like Toshiba, which was exhibiting its 10-pound laptop built around the Media Center edition of the Windows OS here on Monday at a media reception, and the larger accommodating screens offered by Dell and Hewlett-Packard. But Big Blue executives emphasized IBM’s design program isn’t dictated by trends.
“IBM has a rich design history that goes back to the late 1950s,” explained David Hill, Director of Design at IBM’s Systems Group. “And one of the hallmarks of IBM design is that it is purposeful. It is sort of a timeless approach to design. It’s modernism at its ultimate. It doesn’t really go in or out of style. It’s always there. It has a lot of thought leadership behind it. It’s not sort of the trend factory — what’s the hot color this week or what shape is flying off the shelves in the consumer space. It’s about creating business advantage through design.”
But while the ThinkPad is 10 years old, it is also 10 years new, Hill told internetnews.com during a briefing high above the exhibition floor and away from the public eye.
“We have a foundation and we build on it much like Porsche would treat the design of the 911. Every year, the 911 doesn’t have a completely different look and everyone clamors around wondering what the 911 is going to look like this year. They have an idea and the idea is continuously improved. It’s not about different. It’s about better,” IBM’s chief hardware designer said.
In fact, Hill said what makes the IBM’s ThinkPad line unique is what he describes as the relationship between a car’s engine and the dashboard. While lots of people (competitors, analysts and … yes … even journalists) are focused on the engine, IBM’s design program spends most of its time developing and improving the dashboard.
But because the notebook has been tweaked, refined and optimized so much over the years, there is very little more work to do. Many features that were formerly used to differentiate models have become de-facto standards — for example, the hand-rest area on the keyboard. And everything on the notebook computer has been refined to the point that their researchers now know, for instance, what track-point caps users want and even exactly how big the hand-rest area and touchpad controls on the keyboard should be.
“You have to realize the important thing here is that the notebook computer is a highly refined form that’s been refined over 10 years. It’s much like if you look at a car. You have four wheels, a driver’s seat and steering wheel and it’s generally in that configuration. Notebook computers in some ways have reached that level as well although we do have some ideas,” Hill said.
So IBM’s designers are tackling the challenges of how to improve the PC by building upon what is already known. Using the ThinkPad T40 notebook priced starting at $1,999 as a reference point, Hill and IBM’s Distinguished Engineer John Karidis explained that users may be helped by a radically new design that allows them to fold the laptop into a notebook replacement.
To get to this point, IBM simply took the simple black box that opens like a clamshell but added a foldable layer to a hinge that elevates the screen to a level that desktop PC users would find comfortable, the IBM officials explained. This new idea, which Hill described as an “Origami-design for laptops,” let’s the user think of the laptop as a radical new desktop replacement. But conversely, just as laptops can be considered desktops, the desktop can also be considered to be a laptop as illustrated by the second design.
With this model, the monitor is folding up from the base using a similar hinge feature but this time the keyboard detaches and, for instance, could be operated via a Bluetooth connection. When fully closed, both new versions keep the T40 close to its current size and weight while adding a slight premium to the cost.
But continuing with the car analogy, can the new designs be fitted onto an assembly line like Ford did with the Model T? Hill reassured that his design team does extensive production feasibility studies before ideas become actual prototypes.
To be sure, IBM declined to give details about the feedback that has been received to date or any timetables on when the designs might come onto the market. And truth be told, many of the automotive prototypes shown here every Spring take a long time before making it onto the open road.