Earlier this week I received a ThinkPad T25, the 25th anniversary edition of the Lenovo ThinkPad, teased a couple years ago by Lenovo’s lead designer and my former colleague and good friend, David Hill.
I’ve been without a ThinkPad for the past four years. In a fit of madness I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 in 2014 before joining Acquia. While my new employer had once supported a few ThinkPads for its more discerning engineers, the standard issue laptop was a Mac Air, an odious little device that somehow brought to mind Christopher Buckley’s observation that a man driving a minivan is half a man. The former CEO of Acquia, hated seeing me with the Surface just because. I said, like a smarty-pants, that the corporate HR culture wbpage said “Mac or PC? Yes!” He said “Not anymore” and thenceforth I was relegated to forevermore lugging around the Mac to meetings while keeping the Surface docked and hidden at my desk for serious work.
There was something very unsettling and traitorous about going to a competitor’s laptop after five years spent at the dawn of Lenovo marketing the iconic ThinkPad. I felt like I was missing a phantom limb. The Mac was an act of treachery, a true tergiversation. My allergy to Apple products goes back to when I was a reporter for PC Week (“The IBM-standard News Weekly of Corporate Computing) and competed with another Ziff-Davis publication, MacWeek. I never met Steve Jobs, thought John Scully was meh, and for the life of me could never figure out the weird propeller key on the Mac’s keyboard. “It just works!” the Mac addicts would tell me, but Apple has always rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it comes down to the lack of a right mouse button, a sense of the void when it comes to file structure, and a general feeling the things are smug and “twee.”
The ThinkPad however….where to begin in my reverence for those black rubberized rectangles with the red mouse pointer embedded in the middle of the keyboard? Is it just that their keyboards are so sublime, so tactile, so responsive that it’s no wonder the ThinkPad became the standard tool for professional writers just as the Leica M was de rigeur for war photographers? Is it the meaty heft of the total package? A feeling of invulnerability that with it’s magnesium roll cage and hard edges that it would be the weapon of choice if one had to charge the cockpit against a mob of hijackers?
In the documentary “Page One,” the late (and sorely missed) New York Times media critic David Carr interviewed the founders of Vice. He whacks away at his ThinkPad during the interview, taking notes directly into the machine (the same way I used to when I was a reporter), keys clacking away as he is shown a video produced by Vice about Liberia to make the point the upstart media company was the future of journalism in the digital age and the Times was a dinosaur. When Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice dissed the Times, Carr interrupted him, looked up from the ThinkPad and said:
“Time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there covering genocide after genocide. And Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”
When I starting working for Lenovo I quickly forged a bond with David Hill, the vice president of design who was the guardian of the ThinkPad’s flame. David came to Lenovo from IBM’s PC group and had been the steward of the ThinkPad’s design since 1995. The first CMO of Lenovo, Deepak Advani (also a former IBM executive) hired me to establish the new brand online, via Lenovo.com, digital advertising, social media, etc.. While poking around for a theme to hang the first corporate blog on, I rejected the easy path of a ghostwritten, bland affair by our CEO, Bill Amelio and instead homed in on David because of his demeanor and slightly demented passion. I proposed he become the leading voice of the brand with a new blog called “Design Matters” and offered to help with the writing and production because he was such a busy guy. It hindsight, he was the right person to kick off Lenovo’s first blog, touching an audience who was very skeptical about the future of the ThinkPad as IBM divested itself from the commodity world of PCs and handed over the design to a Chinese company, a company only known for contract-assembling PCs for western brands and inventing a graphics card that displayed the Chinese character set on the screens of IBM compatible clones (which a pretty big deal if consider how enormous the China market for PCs has become).
Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005. Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.
The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.
One day while scanning social media chatter for annoyed customers I found a complaint by a writer named James Fallows beefing that the paint on the keys of his new ThinkPad was wearing off under his fingertips. I brought this to the attention of the product managers who sort of shrugged it off until I told them Fallows was the preeminent China correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, (and the co-author of a piece I had written with him in the 1990s for PC Computing on the myth of the garage and innovation in Silicon Valley). We contacted Fallows, swapped his fading machine for a new one, brought the defective one back in, and realized that indeed the paint had been changed and was prone to defects.
David’s writing on Design Matters attracted more comments than any blog I have ever seen or been involved with. A carefully thoughtout disquisition by David into hinges, a behind-the-scenes look into the design lab in Japan run by Arimasa Naitoh, a reminiscence about the ThinkPad’s original designer Richard Sapper… all of them evoked responses in the hundreds from commentators that confirmed to me the heart and soul of Lenovo wasn’t Lenovo per se, but a simple black laptop that had been sent into space by NASA, which sat on the desk in the Oval Office, was toted into battle by war correspondents and was the only computer any self-respecting Master of Universe would crack open in a board room before announcing a hostile takeover. It had to be defended against the bean counters.
David retired from Lenovo this past summer but is still consulting to the company. When I unboxed my new ThinkPad I thought of it, wistfully, as Lenovo’s retirement gift to David in lieu of the proverbial gold watch. I watched him defend the essence of the ThinkPad during my five years at Lenovo; fighting to keep it pure and free from the bling that our competitors drecked their machines up with. Blue lights. Chrome accents. David would howl at the lengths the competition would go to ruin their machines and was deeply offended when his arch nemesis, Apple, introduced a black MacBook.
I shared his frustration when some of his team’s greatest concepts were shot down by the product marketing teams when costs needed to be cut to keep the machine competitive. I suffered the failure of the leather-bound special edition ThinkPad, the Scout, in ‘07 with him. And I watched him light up when he was able to invite Richard Sapper back to design the Skylight in ‘09.
David and I shared great barbecue in Raleigh, laughed at the existential insanity of Lenovo’s Chinese-IBM culture, and hatched numerous schemes and plots to do the right thing by a machine that was inspired by a lacquered Japanese lunch box, the bento box.
The 25th Anniversary ThinkPad has some retro touches — the red, green and light blue ThinkPad logo cocked at its “seemingly arbitrary 37 degree angle” on the corner of the cover and the red-accented mouse buttons under the keyboard. And yes, the keyboard is back, a 7-row throwback to a time when the ThinkPad was the machine for making words happen, a pre-chiclet QWERTY monster that was tweaked and fitted into place with a reverence for the typist’s fingers like no other laptop keyboard before or since. Other than that, the T25 is just a laptop. It runs Windows 10, has an i7 processor, a half-a-terabyte SSD hard disk and a nice touch screen. It doesn’t convert into a tablet, fold back on itself, have a pen, or act like a Swiss army device. It doesn’t have some heart pounding audio system or special gamer capabilities. It’s just the essence of computing from a time when IBM was the greatest computer company in the world, when laptops were the height of technology. When we typed like real writers and didn’t talk to our smartphones as we walk blindly into traffic.
I have it because I need it to use my hour-long train ride into Boston productively writing one of the two books I now have under way. The old Surface Pro 2 has a magnetic clip-on keyboard covered in faux-felt with all the tactile pleasure of a cheap, ill-fitting suit. It’s time to write and I need the ultimate writing machine, one worthy of going into battle or space. This is probably going to be my last ThinkPad (and I have six of them in closets upstairs to remind me of that wild five-year ride marketing the damn things), and it’s a ThinkPad for the ages.
I look forward to opening it, to using it, to deleting the Lenovo bloatware and making it my own. I like the looks it gets in the office, a somewhat covetous look like the ones I get when I wear a good suit and a great pair of shoes. It’s an accessory and a companion that subtly cries out “classic” without shouting.
The machine came exquisitely boxed and packaged. The kind of packaging Apple is great at and David long dreamed of doing. It came with a small book written by David five years ago on the occasion of the ThinkPad’s 20th anniversary. He dedicated this edition “…to the memory and magic of Richard Sapper. He was a great mentor, friend and masterful designer. ThinkPad would not exist as we know it without his vision and determination.”
That may be true, Sapper was a genius, but to also quote the booklet: “David …conceived, along with longtime collaborator Richard Sapper, the evolution design strategy where the core DNA is passed along to each successive generation. David often compares this strategy to how Porsche manages the design of their forever classic 911. This approach is unheard of in a fast-paced high technology market where change dominates. Evolutionary design has created ThinkPad brand value and related design recognition at unprecedented levels within the industry. ThinkPad loyalists are cult-like in their affinity for this highly authentic design classic.”