25 Years of ThinkPad

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.

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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).

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David Hill, Keeper of the ThinkPad DNA

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.

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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.

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Richard Sapper, Father of the ThinkPad

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.”

In memory of Alan White

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Alan White, Editor in Chief of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, passed away yesterday (January 19, 2017) at the age of 68. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, mentor to many, Alan was my first full time editor and my introduction to what it meant to be a reporter many years ago.

He was a gentle man, a keen reporter, and a very elegant editor who didn’t need to raise his voice or affect gruff bluster to command respect and inspire good work. His passing, in these dark days of journalism when daily newspapers feel so marginalized and hanging on by the thinnest of threads when they are needed the most, comes as hard news, especially given his long run at the Eagle Tribune these past forty years.

In 1983 I joined the Eagle-Tribune through my friendship with Alan Rogers, a classmate and neighbor who’s family had founded the paper in the 19th century to serve the mill city of Lawrence on the Merrimack River close by the state line with New Hampshire. I had been a student stringer for the paper during high school, but with hopes of landing a real job with a real paper I moved east from San Francisco with my future wife, rented an apartment in Andover, and started work as a cub reporter on Alan White’s New Hampshire desk.

The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation was about 60,000 and it’s footprint covered Lawrence and Haverhill, the towns along the river, and up north into New Hampshire as far as Derry. The Eagle Tribune was an afternoon paper, an anachronism today, so our presses started running in the late morning with the goal of getting the paper on the subscriber’s doorsteps by the time they came from the mills.

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I was assigned Salem, NH. That was a big beat for a new reporter because it was a bit of a wild boom town for Massachusetts residents who wanted to bet on the horses at Rockingham Park, buy beer on Sunday, ride the roller coaster at Canobie Lake or get a new refrigerator free from sales tax. My life consisted of driving around the town, checking in on the district court, the police department, the fire department, and, in the evening: attending meetings of the board of selectmen, the school committee or whatever civic group was holding an event worth a few column inches in the next day’s paper. Some days I would turn in three stories. Never did a day go by when I didn’t write something.

My first story was about a very dry and uneventful sewer bond hearing. I sat in the town hall meeting room, very confused by things like the open meeting law and executive sessions; occasionally amused by the cranks in the audience who took to the microphone to vent their theories or take jabs at the board members. I had a Canon AE-1 loaded with black and white  film, a blue Bic pen, and a reporter’s notebook that had the exhortation: “Accuracy-Brevity-Clarity” on the cover.

I was helpless. My handwriting is unintelligible at best when I work at it, but a total waste of ink when I’m nervous and trying to transcribe what someone is saying. Worse of all: I didn’t know how the notebook actually worked and was very confused by how the damn thing was supposed to be used because I didn’t realize the spiral binding was meant to be at the top, and not the side like a notebook I used in school. So I taped the meeting on a microcassette recorder for back up, followed every boring word and motion and vote until it adjourned at 10 pm, then finally went back to the newsroom to sit down and write my first story.

I wrote. I listened to the tape. I puzzled over the notes. I wrote some more. Eventually, after hours of work I sent the story to Alan’s queue in the Hastech editing system and went home for some sleep; knowing I was expected back the next morning to answer questions and put the story to bed.

But the next morning all hell broke loose. A police captain  was shot in his bed by his wife with about 30 minutes left before the presses were supposed to run. Delaying the presses meant all the delivery trucks would have to wait, the overtime for the union drivers would pile up, and there would be hell to pay. So, with lots of urgency, the ace reporter on staff went to work while other reporters worked the phones, others radioed in on walkie talkies from the scene, and the photographers drove like mad men to snap pictures and return in time to develop them and get them onto plates. While the reporter , cigarette hanging from his lip,  the editors looked over his shoulder offering edits as he wrote, wasting no time to wait for him to finish to actually edit it.

I felt useless but kind of exhilarated. Now this is News, I thought. This was a genuine catastrophe and these poorly dressed people were making something out of  the chaos against the clock. For the first time I witnessed a deadline. I saw spinning headlines, editors shouting “STOP THE PRESSES”, newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

In the middle of it all, going placidly amidst the haste, sat Alan White, a substantial man with his wire rimmed spectacles, and he summoned me to his desk.

“So this story here…” He pointed at the black screen glowing green with the words I had written the night before and I tried to look eager while reading his face for some desperately needed praise. “….is about 1000 words long and I only need 150. So. I am going to do this….”

Alan did some secret Masonuc keyboard-macro-combination-thing and popped the cursor to the bottom of the story.

“.…and get rid of all of this…..” He highlighted 90 percent of my First Story and with a dismissive tap of a key, deleted it forever.. “.…then I’m going to fix the ending here….” He wrote two sentences with only his index fingers and thumbs (because no one ever was a touch typist in a newsroom), looked at them with a little pride while something withered up inside of me and died. I. Was. A. Writer. Alan read the surviving six paragraphs silently, then turned from the screen and looked at me abd through me, thought for a moment, then  turned back to the computer and wrote the headline with no indecision. He hit another key, yelled at the copydesk to let them know they had incoming and dismissed me. “There. Done. See me after lunch.”

I didn’t eat lunch. I sat at my desk while trying to look busy. I read the cheat sheet for the computer’s keyboard shortcuts trying to figure out the black art of making it do the things Alan could make it do.

The press started. The entire building rumbled and shook. All the shouting over the cop shooting vanished as if it hadn’t happened. One second the place was nuts. The next it was Alan White eating a sandwich out of a brown bag and reading the first edition with his feet on his desk.  When I saw he was finished I went back as requested.

“Look. I know you worked on that thing for hours, but you got to understand one thing this isn’t a short story about your grandmother’s funeral. Okay? Nothing personal, but when you don’t write tight then I have to spend all my time time cutting things back, looking around in there  for good quotes and I just don’t have the time. So… Tomorrow. Do better. Write less. Write fast. Write tight. Okay?”

“Yes Mister White.”

“It’s Al. Get out of here and go knock on some doors. Any questions?”

I had lots of questions, foremost was how the notebook thing worked. So I asked him. He stared balefully at me then took my notebook out of my hands and looked at my notes from the sewer bond hearing. “Whoa. Were you dropped on your head as a baby? Is this shorthand or hieroglyphics?”

I explained I wasn’t sure how to use it. His deadpan answer: “You write in it.”

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I explained I didn’t know how to hold it. It was long and thin and the spiral was on the narrow edge, not the long one. Alan squinted, genuinely puzzled by the question. He handed the notebook back and said, “Show me.”

So I demonstrated my lack of technique and tried to explain the notebook was poorly designed and maybe I should go buy a more traditional one with my own money and, well, sorry, I’d be fine. I wanted to get away from the embarrassment before I totally confirmed to him I was a cretin.

“Wait. Show me that again.” I wrote some more. Flipped a page, wrote on it to the bottom. Flipped the page again. Wrote on it.

“No. No. No. Not like that. Where did you go to college? Whatsamatta U? You’re wasting half the pages.” He grabbed it back,  folded the thing open onto itself so there was a blank sheet on either side and then demonstrated that the technique was to flip the notebook over — scribble down one side, give the whole thing a flip, keep scribbling, then turn the page over and voila, two more blank sheets. Flip it, write, turn the page. Flip it, write. Turn the page.

I was enlightened. Alan handed it back. “Want to know why it’s that way?” 

“Please,” I said.

“So you can stuff it in your back pocket.”

Three months later, while I was sitting at my desk covered with vending machine coffee cups with poker hands printed on the side (hole card was underneath the bottom), Alan came by, grabbed a waste paper basket, and cleared away my collection of carefully stacked and completed notebooks I had been saving for some future reference. I freaked out over the invasion but Alan kept grabbing stacks of notebooks and throwing them into the trash. “Um. I was saving those for….”

“For what? We don’t save notebooks.” Alan said.

“We don’t? I mean, shouldn’t I keep them just in case…..”

“In case of what? You want to frame them? Want to know why I throw away notebooks?”

“Yes. Of course…”

“Because the DA can’t subpoena a landfill.”

In six months Alan White taught me enough of the trade  that I was finally doing some real investigative reporting that made the front page on a regular basis and wasn’t six inches of deathless prose about the Salem Kiwanis luncheon buried deep inside of the New Hampshire edition along with the other little blurbs from Plaistow and Atkinson and Londonderry. In eight months he decided I was good enough to cover the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primaries and trusted me — me,  a callow 23 year old kid — to ride around the Granite State asking Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan and George McGovern and Gary Hart questions that would wind up with their answers printed on the front page.

Alan White taught me how to push for the news. He pushed me to get the courage up to ask a dead kid’s mother for a picture to run next to the story of her son’s tragic death by a hit and run driver while she was insane with grief, but still get the goddamn photo. He taught me how to cover a fire, a car accident, how to make cops like me and let me cross the police tape. And most importantly, Alan taught me how to maintain my objectivity, always challenge everything a politician told me, and for god’s sake learn to spell a person’s name right. The man was tough. The man was fair. He made me want to be better.

He was wickedly funny, took joy in the news we couldn’t print (Alan reveled in newsroom gossip), and was always the best election predictor in the newsroom, Alan was always ready to talk about fishing, his deep abiding passion, specifically striped bass which he hunted from his home base on Plum Island in Newburyport.

I realize now, as  I do the math, that the Alan White I knew, the New Hampshire editor, was only 33 years old at the time I worked for him. His patience, his  confidence in his reporters, his unrelenting standards for accuracy, all are the things that led him to become the editor in chief of the entire paper long after I moved on to other papers and the rest of my career. But Alan loyally stayed in that newsroom, even after the Rogers family sold it to a chain and it was absorbed into the great contraction of the news business that killed off lesser papers by the hundreds over the last 20 years.

He won two Pulitzer Prizes. Two. And through it all he patiently schooled hundreds of reporters — many of whom are still my good friends to this day, a couple of whom followed me from the Tribune to PC Week and Forbes like Dan Lyons and Russell Glitman.

Alan would have wanted to be remembered as a reporter. He wasn’t a “journalist.” Alan was a reporter from Worcester and proud of it.  He knocked on doors, questioned everything, but did it with a grace and focus I can only wish I  could  begin to channel today.I bet he would have edited this post down to half its size.

The End of the World as Debunked By My College Roommate

Professor John Hoopes and I shared a room our senior year at Yale. He is now an archaeology professor at the University of Kansas and the leading expert/debunker of the Mayan 2012 calendar myth.

I found this FAQ he wrote on the whole nonsense. It is remarkably clear and cogent; in keeping with his brilliant research and fine writing style. It may be of use to you when some wingnut starts raving about the end of the world scheduled for Dec. 21, 2012. I found myself in the difficult position of having to try to persuade (unsuccessfully) a friend’s frightened sister in 1999 who had quit her job, sold her condo, and moved to the Rockies to survive the end of the world brought on by Y2K.

It’s also an interesting critique of the New Age movement and the pseudo-spiritual-science that seized onto some random facts, amplified some distortions, and wound up marketing a very popular niche in terms of books and film. You’ll be undoubtedly hearing a lot more from John as the year goes on. He’s been waging a quiet battle with the tin-foil turban crowd for a couple years now.

 

 

 

 

Moving along

Today I’m leaving Lenovo after four and half years as the vice-president of  global digital marketing. I had set myself a two-year timer for the job when I joined in January of 2006, planning on moving on to the next big thing following the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. But the Great Recession intervened in the fall of 2008 and for six months I had a very enjoyable career shift into the development of a fascinating cloud PC called the Skylight.

After the CMO — Deepak Advani — who hired me departed in the winter of 2009 and the company restructured itself to weather the recession by focusing on its China base and emerging markets, I found myself  in a marketing organization scaling back from the halycon days leading up to the Olympics. My focus on social media shifted to the formation of a digital marketing organization focused on delivering sales, and for the last six months I’ve been pushing string inside of the organization to re-focus Lenovo.com and deliver some value to a company in the midst of a profound transition to a new world of handheld mobile internet devices, slates, phones, etc..  This past spring a new CMO was brought in from HP to rebuild the brand.

All combined to make it the right time to move on.

What’s next? The cliche that I have irons in the fire is an understatement and I have a book or two I should be writing, I’m looking at cloud services, software and Web 2.0. I miss media, fraught with change as it is, but I won’t be rushing back into the hardscrabble margins of the PC hardware business.

Thanks go out to:

  • Deepak Advani, the Chief Marketing Officer who hired me in the fall of 2005  and gave me a huge amount of freedom to launch Lenovo’s corporate blogging program, transform web marketing, and in general be as creative as possible.
  • Bill Amelio, Lenovo’s former CEO, for emphasizing the new world order of conversational marketing, and seeing the value of a brand that listens and responds to its customers.
  • Glen Gilbert, Craig Merrigan, David Hill for their amazing creativity and willingness to take risks.
  • Gary Milner for being one of the smartest digital marketers I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
  • Ajit Sivadasan for being a partner in web marketing and an amazing force of nature unto himself.
  • Mark Hopkins, Nano Serwich, Matt Kohut for having a passion for blogging, social media and doing the right thing for the customer and the company.
  • Peter Hortensius, Fran O’Sullivan, Peter Gaucher, and Ninis Samuel for giving me the chance to watch a fascinating hardware development project up close.
  • Lenovo’s China team. Alice Li, Leon Xie, Elijah Degan, Cissy Yang and countless others for permitting me a glimpse into the most dynamic market in the history of the world.
  • Andrew Flanagan, Mark McNeilly, Jeff Shafer, Ray Gorman, Lisa Sonntag, Kevin Beck and all the great people in Lenovo marketing.
  • Steve Starkey — for a shared love of the Red Sox and for his friendship, advice, and counsel.
  • And my team: Vivian Young, Maureen Ahmad, Regina Leonard, Nano, Gavin — Esteban Panzeri (who left in February). We did some great things together.

Thanks to all for the well wishes.

Birth of a new machine

Heading into CES two weeks ago I wrote about the Lenovo Skylight, the first so-called “Smartbook” to run Qualcomm’s Snapdragon ARM process, a device explicitly conceived to be a “cloud computer” or social device.

My colleague and Lenovo’s first official blogger, VP of Design David Hill, has written a riveting account of how the Skylight came to be designed by Richard Sapper, the Milan-based wizard of industrial design who designed the first IBM ThinkPad. Skylight began in the early fall of 2008 when a small team was formed to look into a rapid development project to get Lenovo ahead of the commodity netbook market with a strong, differentiated offering that addressed the rapid shifts in online usage. While we focused on alternative operating systems such as Android, our SVP of Notebooks, Peter Hortensius, urged the team to consider the Qualcomm processor because of its unique architecture, amazing power consumption profile, and integrated wireless communications.

Once the principles were established, Hill recommended we turn to the original master for a concept. His blog post details the remarkable birth of the machine, including a chance meeting at a Gloucester, Massachusetts cocktail party where Sapper was introduced to a luthier (stringed instrument craftsman) with a woodworking shop and the capability to produce a wooden model.

I think the tale is the best thing we’ve ever published on a corporate blog. I hope you enjoy it.

What makes a device “social?”: Lenovo Skylight

Coming out of the 2008 Summer Olympics I joined a small team within Lenovo consisting of the company’s best engineers and designers to re-invent the netbook category — those small (sub 11″ screen) PCs that have taken the market by storm since their introduction two years ago.

The netbook category has flourished for a couple reasons best explored by a serious PC analyst — my opinion is that sub $400 PCs in a super-portable form factor were the perfect option for consumers slammed by economic concerns in this Great Recession and who are gradually migrating to a “disposable” device model brought on by a constant upgrade cycle in their phone and other consumer electronics.  Alas, the netbook is still the same operating system, the same computing model, just in a smaller, cheaper package.

Consider the smartphone.  Small. Thin. Long battery life. No patches or updates or viruses. No waiting to boot. It’s always connected (almost always). Highly designed. It just works. But it is too small to watch a movie on and is a major pain to compose anything on — aside from simple SMS or email “grunts.”

What happens if you combine the two models — the connected simplicity of a smartphone with the physical ergonomics of a netbook? Well, you get a “smartbook.”

Skylight

Today Lenovo announced the first smartbook — called Skylight —  in partnership with Qualcomm, the San Diego-based leader in phone chipsets. Using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform, the Lenovo Skylight is designed with cloud computing and social networking in mind.  It is not a phone per se, but it leverages a 3G or Wifi network connection to present the user with a high definition browser experience that assumes most, if not all of the user’s content and activities are up there, in the cloud.

There is no harddrive, just a lot of flash memory.  Productivity applications? Google Docs. Music? Amazon.  This is a device designed for messaging and media.

So what makes it social? The user interface is a proprietary design built around an “app” paradigm. Those apps contain the user’s primary accounts — email, instant messaging, SMS, Facebook, etc. — and are extensible and customizable.  The device is meant to be constantly on and connected, permitting the user to interact with it on an ad hoc basis, not a formal session where the user needs to power on, connect, then log in.

The design of the system is amazing, delivered by Richard Sapper, the genius behind the original ThinkPad.   The user interface is internally developed on top of a Linux kernel and is pretty intuitive and very browser centric. The software implementation was remarkable, particularly given the challenges of porting a large screen user experience to an ARM platform. The engineering teams lead by Mike Vanover, Jim Hunt, and others pulled off a significant development miracle in building the operating environment.

The name — Skylight — is indicative of the device’s mission as a hardware portal into the cloud. With persistent and constant 3G and wifi, the device should have no issues living up to its name.

I presented a prototype to some resellers in London last summer and over the course of a few days was able to play with the machine on a wifi only basis. Given the early, pre-pre-beta condition of the build, it was surprisingly stable and provided a great glimpse into what a cloud device would behave like.  My earlier thoughts on stripped down operating systems and cloud centric computing models all emanated from my week with the Skylight prototype. It also was a device that seemed to sell itself. Thin is definitely in and the Skylight is astonishingly thin for a clamshell form factor. Watching the development process and the way the project leader Peter Gaucher was able to keep the device as thin as its initial prototype was remarkable: essentially thinness comes at a price, but Gaucher was able to defend the machine against the forces of thickness and economics.

As soon as we have seed units I hope to get some Skylights into the hands of the Lenovo Blogger Advisory Council for their insights into how they use the device and ways to improve it as it evolves. This represents a very interesting exercise in innovation, one I was honored to have witnessed. It represents and embodies a lot of what makes Lenovo such an interesting place to be: a place where risks are taken and old paradigms are challenged. Is this the be-all, end-all social device? No, but it is a start that marks a radical departure from old familiar models to a new one altogether.

I discussed this category at length with my former Forbes.com buddy Om Malik last week in San Francisco. He had tablet fever to some extent, and was more focused on operating systems issues such as the convergence of Android and Chrome or the presence of Jolicloud. The issue, as I see it, is one that Lenovo SVP Peter Hortensius has called the “wasteland” — the “tweener” space between a smartphone and a netbook — the space where we all are seeking some device about the size of an airplane ticket. The place where the Apple Newton once lived. And the Sony Vaio P series, and even our own prototype Pocket Yoga. We need a big screen to stream our movies and our YouTubes, yet we want to hold it to our ears so we can talk. We need a device that is persistent, that doesn’t need an outlet to survive more than couple hours of constant use, something that we can show off (consumer electronics are fashion statements).

Does Skylight achieve that? We shall see. I know I am ready to move to the category and expect it will, overtime, morph as carrier 3G/4G wireless models change, the cloud becomes more mainstream, and the  category achives ubiquity.

Reviews

Notebookreview.com

Engadget

Gizmodo

CES 2010

I am off to Las Vegas on Wednesday for the Consumer Electronics Show. Want to find me? I’ll be in the Aquaknox Restaurant in the Venetian running this showblog – Lenovo Live@CES

From my welcome post on the site:

“Welcome to the next best thing to being there — but without the cab lines and the casino buffets — Lenovo Live@CES, where myself and a dozen other Lenovo bloggers will be reporting from the Aquaknox Restaurant, Lenovo’s headquarters at the world’s largest consumer electronics and computer show.

From January 7 through the 10th we’ll use this site and a variety of social services from Flickr to Twitter (the hashtag is #LenovoCES) to publish interviews, insights, and announcements related to our new wave of ThinkPad and IdeaPad PCs, as well as some new categories we’re getting into, and of course the people behind those products:  our designers and engineers.

We will be streaming live from the show on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights at three blogger nights hosted by Mitch Ratcliffe, moderator of the Lenovo Blogger Advisory Council and Chris Heuer of the Social Media Club. Each night will have a different theme, blogging partner, and special guest as well as an ongoing series of new product announcements each night.

Please subscribe to our feed, follow us on Twitter at @lenovosocial, or keep this site bookmarked for updates throughout the week. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!