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.

lenovo-laptop-thinkpad-25-retro-hero

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).

ny171560
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.

kitty

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.

sapper_1.1423736594
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.”

What’s on your desktop? Productivity Apps I use

I figured I’d list the tools, plug-ins, and apps I use to keep my act together. Here’s a list of the more important ones.

  1. Google DocsGoogle Drive: Acquia is a Google Docs driven company (thank God). If you suffer in the land of Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook, there is hope. Change jobs and join a company that uses Google services and your life will be better. I’m Google-centric even though I own a Microsoft Surface. I despise Apple (long rant, but I hate Apple products). In this day and age I guess there are three choices: Google, Apple or Microsoft. I tried to be in love with Microsoft’s Office 360 and OneDrive, but Acquia is  on Google, my consulting clients are embracing it, I own an Android phone and an Android tablet so Google it is.
  2. Dropbox – long time fan. Use it for keeping my stuff synched up across devices and sharing with friends.
  3. Evernote  – paired with a Fujirsu ScanSnap scanner, I use Evernote for storing important personal documents (mooring permits, car insurance policies, etc.) and love the integration with the New York Time’s Cooking section recipe box. I use Evernote on the boat by taking pictures with my phone of oil filters, navigational lights, drive belts, etc.. so when I am at West Marine I know exactly what to get.
  4. Any.do – task and list manager. I especially love the integration with my new Amazon Echo. It makes it easy to just say, “Alexa. Add review blog post to my personal to-do list” and then have it appear on Any.do’s app on the phone or Chrome browser plug in. It’s a great reminder for everything that clutters up my “get shit done” lists.
  5. Simplenote – I take tons of notes. Simplenote, a freebie from Automattic, parent of WordPress, is a very nice tool. Microsoft One Note also fits the bill at times (see below).s1500_header2_tcm127-1195268
  6. Smart Recorder – Android app which I use to record interviews. I get a file which I then send off to a transcription service, two days later I have a transcript.
  7. Alarm Clock Pro – Android app so I won’t oversleep.
  8. Business Calendar – replacement app for the default Google calendar on my HTC 10. Worth the money.
  9. TripIt Pro – big fan of this for managing travel plans. I was tipped off to it by Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools and love how it simply works intelligently by watching my inbox for travel confirmations and then pulls them into the app..
  10. Microsoft One Note – I like OneNote and have been a fan off and on since it first appeared. The “record meeting” capability is crucial to me in some meetings at work. I use One Note across all my devices to keep track of meetings.

It’s worth noting  I like some of these things so much I will actually pay for premium levels from Dropbox, Evernote, Any.do., TripIt, and other stuff.  I also keep a subscription to the Microsoft Office suite — there are times when I need to really get detailed and nothing but the real thing — Word, Powerpoint, Excel — will do.

There’s a lot of stuff I’ve tried and rejected. Example: Nuance’s  Dragon NaturallySpeaking paired with a little Sony IC voice recorder never worked as hoped and I’ve never seen a more obnoxious spammy company like Nuance.

Andy Grove

I was first exposed to Andy Grove in 1985 at PC Week when Intel was riding high after its 8086/8088 microprocessor was ensconced by IBM as the standard in its first PC — giving rise to the so called Wintel oligopoly that kicked off the PC Revolution that followed.

Grove had an amazing life story — surviving World War II, the Soviet occupation of his native Hungary, emigrating to New York City in the late 50s and heading straight to City College for a free education that he turned into one of the most illustrious careers in the entire PC industry.

Walter Issacson, in his book “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” details the vital role played in the Intel “Holy Trinity” of Gordon Moore (he of Moore’s Law) and Bob Noyce. It was Grove who pushed Intel out of memory and into microprocessors,  transforming the chip maker into one of the biggest forces in tech.

Issacson wrote:

“Grove nurtured Noyce’s egalitarian approach – he worked in an exposed cubicle his entire career, and loved it – but he added an overlay of what he called ‘constructive confrontation.’ He never put on airs, but he never let down his guard. In contrast to Noyce’s sweet gentility, Grove had a blunt, no-bullshit style. It was the same approach Steve Jobs would later use: brutal honesty, clear focus, and a demanding drive for excellence. ‘Andy was the guy who made sure the trains all ran on time,’ recalled Ann Bowers. ‘He was a taskmaster. He had very strong views about what you should do and what you shouldn’t do and he was very direct about that.'”

What I’m Reading: The Innovators

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

 

I have succumbed to the world of books-on-tape and been using the 90 mile/2x daily commute from Cape Cod to Burlington to do more than listen to NPR and curse my hollow, rat-on-a-wheel existence. I’ve been a fan since my commute to and from Manhattan for Eastman Advisors, but perhaps Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t the wisest first choice for an automotive literary experience. In 2001, when I briefly did the same commute to McKinsey & Co’s short-lived TomorrowLab, I listened to lectures from The Learning Company, thinking I was being super efficient and relentlessly self-improving like Dr. Evil’s father the baker who claimed to have invented the question mark.

Audible is definitely making the commute a lot more enjoyable. I’ve tried dictating into a voice recorder and plugging the results into Nuance software’s speech recognition software, but I can’t compose via dictation and feel like an utter asshole in bumper-to-bumper holding a little red Sony recorder under my chin and pretending I am composing literary genius (note to self, search to see if any significant piece of literature has ever been dictated).

So far this fall I’ve listened to The Map Thief; Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One; and Chris Anderson’s Free, along with a steady diet of podcasts, usually Drupal and open source related. I was always impressed by the anecdote that George Gilder, the Forbes columnist and newsletter writer wrecked a couple cars out in the Berkshires because he was fond of driving around listening to technical lectures and proceedings from the IEEE and other deep-geek gatherings. The story, unconfirmed, was he put a car or two in the ditch because he’d get so wrapped up in talks about erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.

Now I’m into Walter Issacson’s breezy history of the computer, Internet, and digital revolution and I’m liking it, even if everything is old news because I’ve worked in the industry since the early 1980s and have read pretty much all the histories and biographies of the computer age. Walter’s biography of Steve Jobs was a huge bestseller and I enjoyed it very much as it taught me two things about Jobs which I did not know before: Jobs didn’t flush toilets and he banned Powerpoint.  In Innovators, Issacson does a fine job of keeping the history from falling into the rat hole of theoretical science, injects some good human drama and tales of eccentricity, and connects it all together in a way that a Millenial obsessed with hooking up on Tindr and managing their social networks might actually pause and pay some respect to the geniuses (mostly men, mostly working during the Great Depression) who invented the vacuum tube powered 50-ton monster computers that got things rolling.

He begins with the tale of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, a passionate mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer because of her work with Charles Babbage during his development of the mechanical calculator, the Analytical Engine during the first half of the 19th Century. Then a leap to the second half of the century, and the mechanization of the US Census by IBM’s early founder Herman Hollerith (this cutting down the analysis of the census from an eight year manual process to just one); and then to 1937 — the year it all came together in the US, England and Germany for a bunch of unconnected inventors and scientists who looked at the technology available to them and managed, through a combination of vacuum tubes, hardwired circuits, electric-mechanical relays, “memories” made out of rotating tin cans and lots of scrounging, to independently invent variations on what are now regarded as the first working computers.

There’s something about listening to the excitement caused by the Mother of All Demos (Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of the first mouse, graphical user interface, and network in 1968), the founding of Intel by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, the impact the MITS Altair had on the Bay Area’s hacker/maker subculture, the development of the Internet’s protocols out of ARPANET…..all familiar stories, but very chilling when told through an Android phone mounted on the dashboard of a car, a pocket computer with more storage and power that ever could have been conceived of and yet…..

That future was always in the minds of people like Vannevar Bush — the man who forged the collaboration between the military, academic and industrial research during World War II and was the “Scientist-in-Chief,” advising presidents from FDR through Eisenhower: he described the personal computer he called a “Memex” in a famous essay published by The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and his vision of the DynaBook in the early 70s. Ada Lovelace speculating in the 1820s that someday there would be machines that could help create art.

The theme that fascinates me — a theme emerging from listening to Chris Anderson, Peter Thiel, and Issacson — is that the greatest invention in all of the Information Age is debatable, but the one that is most intangible is the way “innovation” is defined and happens. I personally detest the way “innovation” is tossed around by buzzwordists along with “impactful” and “pivot” like verbal styrofoam peanuts; but a tangible definition and set of conditions conducive to it occurring is coming together in my mind. Hence, Churbuck’s Theory of Innovation:

  1. Those who talk about innovation generally don’t understand it.
  2. Innovation is not a synonym for creativity or discovery — creativity and inspiration are required, but the words are not synonyms. Galileo didn’t innovate his heliocentric view of the universe — he proved through a telescope that the planets orbit the sun (and pissed off the Church in the process).
  3. Innovation strictly defined in my mind is the commercialization of invention. Bear with me, for this is the fine distinction between discovering some new truth: “Silicon doped with impurities will become a semiconductor” that’s a discovery, an invention.  Putting a logical circuit on a base of doped silicon by printing a pattern of conductive lines is an invention and can be patented. Realizing you can cram all the logical functions required by a computer’s central processing unit onto a single chip and then selling the hell out of them (as Intel did) I argue is an innovation. Science leads to discoveries. Innovation applies those discoveries to products or processes.
  4. Innovation is an “aha” moment to be sure, but it usually doesn’t happen alone, by a lone genius in a garage, but in a group of collaborators in the right combination of environment and management structures. Flat organizations based on a meritocracy are far more conducive to innovation than old command-and-control structure. Open sharing of invention and discoveries is the fuel for innovation — innovation is derived and borrowed from many sources and crushed by patents and secrecy.

I highly recommend the Thiel book — his view of what it takes to build a company, as well as Issacson’s — it’s more about the management and culture breakthroughs than anything else. Flat organizations, rewarding individual contributors with a piece of the action, and leadership that makes decisions and shepherds projects towards clear goals while deflecting distractions are as important as any factor, technical or creative. Issacson provides an excellent example: Texas Instruments took the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs and made the first transistor radios — reducing a bulky device that sat on a table and required tubes to a form factor the size of a stack of index cards. As luck would have it, the first transistor radio coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll, and for the first time teenagers could listen, in privacy, to the music their parents hated on the living room Philco. The invention — the Regency TR-1 — was the innovation of a new “use case,” the transistor itself was introduced to the public consciousness, and the result was as profound (if not more so) than the iPod 50 years later.

It’s a long way of my saying, it’s good to stop and take stock of the invention that surrounds us and realize that in a very short span of time — 50 years essentially — we’re gone from “Shake Rattle and Roll” in our pockets, to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on our dashboards.

 

 

 

The New Kingmakers — book review

Steven O’Grady is the co-founder of Redmonk, a developer-focused tech analyst firm, and a very smart analyst at that. I first got to know him in 2006 via my old boss at Lenovo, the  CMO Deepak Advani who had a deep interest in Open Source and developer relations from his days at IBM. O’Grady and his co-founding partner James Governor gave us invaluable insights into the Open Source market, something that was unexpectedly crucial to Lenovo’s digital marketing focus as unbeknownst to us, one of the iconic Thinkpad laptops had been embraced as a reference platform to simplify hardware driver development for new distros.

Steven is also a great fan of all things Red Sox (his blog “Wicked Clevah” is one of the few I read) and is a striper fisherman up on the coast of Maine where he works and lives. So our orbits have overlapped on a few vectors.

This past spring he published with O’Reilly Media a very compelling argument that developers are the “new kingmakers” in contemporary IT and corporate digital strategy because of their crucial role in building value, defending against disruption, and making the technology decisions formerly reserved for procurement teams and the CIO. The result is a complete over-turning of the way organizations select and deploy technology, putting the developers in charge of the tools and standards that govern IT-enabled innovation and operations. We intuitively figured that out at Lenovo under the premise that when anyone makes a technology decision — “what phone should I buy? what laptop? what software?” — they turn to the most technical and expert person in their network. For those of us trying to build an influencer model online to sell computers, that audience was comprised of developers. Make them happy, give them what they need in terms of information and content, and they in turn will be the ones who declare if your technology is crap or not.

O’Grady nails the impact that the developer community is having on tech — from standards to commercial software to the way companies hire and retain the best coding talent they can find. His point is going to be very bleak new to the marketing teams at B2B tech companies. All those white papers and conferences and drive to get to the CEO and the COO and the CMO and the CIO ….. guess what? Developers could care less and they are the ones who matter.

In the latter half of the 20th century, developers were effectively beholden to their employers. The tools they needed to be productive — hardware and software — just were not affordable on an individual basis. Developers wishing to build even something as trivial as a website were confronted by an unfortunate reality: most of the necessary building blocks were available only under commercial licenses. Operating systems, databases, web and application servers, and development tools all required money. To get anything done, developers needed someone to write checks for the tools they needed. That meant either raising the capital to buy the necessary pieces, or — more often — requesting that an employer or other third party purchase them on the developer’s behalf.

“The new century, however, has ushered in profound and permanent shifts in the relationship between developer and employer. No longer is the former at the mercy of the latter’s budget. With the cost of development down by an order of magnitude or mode, the throttle on developer creativity has been removed, setting the stage for a Cambrian explosion of projects.

“Four major disruptions drove this shift: open source, the cloud, the Internet, and seed-stage financing.”

Basically, the point is that the company may buy one set of technology but developers will be developers and build stuff with the tools they want to use, not the tools the CIO negotiated a good price for out on the golf course.  Rather than put up with “official” technology, developers just get stuff done with the right tools — generally free tools — that get the job done.

“….the balance of power began to tilt in favor of developers. Developers, not their bosses, became the kingmakers. Technology selection increasingly wasn’t determined by committee or bake offs or who played golf with the CIO, but by what developers decided, on their own, to use.

“MySQL salespeople used to walk into businesses, for example, only to be told that they were wasting their time because the business wasn’t using any MySQL. At which point the MySQL salesperson would reply, “That’s interesting, because your organization has downloaded the package 5,000 times in the last two years.” This was and is the new balance of power. Not for every technology sector, of course, but for more every year.”

This is a very concise and accessible book — aimed at the marketers and executive management of companies who rely on developers to build their success.  In my bookshelf of tech books that matter, this one will have a long shelf life. If you’re managing digital strategy,  evaluating tech vendors, or trying to market hardware and software, this book can be digested in less than two hours and will, trust me, have an impact on how you see the new world.

Stepping off the upgrade treadmill – I hate my devices

Random rant expressing hatred of my technology this cloudy Monday morning…..

There was saying among reporters in the tech press in the 1980s that “The PC you want always costs $5000.

I heard this often enough from enough people who knew the business that I had to agree — the PC you could afford was about $1,000, but the one you wanted, the really, really good one that could play Flight Simulator, was $5,000. Upgrading to a new PC was a point of professional pride for a tech reporter.  PC Week gave reporters the original IBM 8088 PC, the one Charlie Chaplin introduced that started it all, an ugly grey monster with a cast-iron keyboard that was the best I’ve ever used. If you were cool you got the IBM PC one with a 10 megabyte hard disk, the IBM PC AT. I remember when the 386 chip came out and the Editor in Chief had the first one from Compaq. Definitely a $5000 machine at the time. Forbes was lost in the stone ages and it took mutinies and expense account fraud to get a PC that would actually work (and I was the senior tech editor).

Now me and the rest of the world is lugging around tablets and smartphones and notebooks and bluetooth speakers and god knows what else and no one other than a few paste-eaters give a damn what “megabyte” size it is or what magic chip makes it go faster. When the iPad arrived I took one look at the rectangle of glass and said “So much for design. Not much you can do with a rectangle.”

I think I was right. Other than the size of the rectangle — be it a phone in your hand, or a tablet in your lap — the only thing that makes one different from another is the software it runs. It’s all about the cult of the backend store these days — are you a Windows person or an Apple cultist? A follower of the Google or you’ve bought into Amazon Prime? I really don’t care if my rectangle comes from Apple or Lenovo or Samsung or Dell.

Now, as my phone contract is up for renewal and my Google Nexus 7 is running a little slower, I realize I could care less about shelling out a few hundred for the next great rectangles. Other than the fact I despise Sprint and my Samsung Galaxy S3 is infected with a mysteriously cheery ring tone that just goes off at random moments because of some ghost app I can’t be bothered to hunt down …..and the New York Times takes too long to load stories on the tablet …. I honestly have reached a complete state of device anhedonia where I could go on with the same crappy stuff for another two years, scratching it up and cracking the cases and in general not giving a damn about being seen in public with the latest drool-inducing toy. And who wants to buy new accessories for the damn things?

I think my next device is going to be a hearing aid.

 

I have seen the future and its name is Chromebook

Six years ago Google began positioning it’s excellent browser, Chrome, as a operating system for so-called “cloud PCs” — computers that achieved full functionality when they were connected to the internet. At the time, when I was working at Lenovo, the concept was pretty far advanced and garnered some skepticism, especially inside of Lenovo which was deeply wedded to the Windows-Intel world of traditional computing. I was part of the advanced project team under Peter Gaucher and Peter Hortensius working on our own cloud PC, a gorgeous little Richard Sapper design called the Skylight which went on to win best in show at the 2010 CES but never was sold because the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor was too feeble to give the kind of user experience the newly launched iPad delivered.

I was a big advocate for Lenovo to make the Skylight a Chromium-OS machine, but we went our own way with a proprietary operating environment. I remained fixated on the notion of a browser-centric user-interface and OS, and ported Chromium onto a Lenovo S10 netbook with pleasing results.

Lenovo didn’t jump onto Chromebooks (they do apparently have a education-focused offering in their catalogue, but nothing for consumers) the way Acer, Samsung and Hewlett Packard did.

I ordered a C720 from Acer via Amazon a few weeks ago and have been using it as my primary portable PC. I have say the thing is remarkable for the price; $250, offers near full functionality, and is incredibly well integrated with my Google account (as one would expect). It’s fast, based on Intel’s Haswell architecture, and is the best crappy computer I’ve ever owned.

Although I’ve tended to be a Dropbox fanatic when it comes to cloud document storage, the Chromebook is pushing me back to Google Drive, even though Dropbox is perfectly usable through its web interface on the machine. The device plays movies beautifully, has great sound, a decent keyboard (not great), and a trackpad that does what it needs to do. I find myself touching the screen out of habit born from my Nexus 7 tablet, but for notetaking, quick blog posts, and looking stuff up, the machine is probably the single best technology purchase I’ve made in years. Sure the build quality is a little plasticky, and the cover is too stiff to pop open with one hand, but the battery goes for nine hours, the thing is thin and light, and will be toting it to London tonight and leaving behind my monster corporate issued Dell notebook with no regrets whatsoever.

Yes, the machine wants an internet connection to thrive, but I can use Gmail and the Google apps offline — on a plane for example — without much problem. This is my leave-hanging-around-the-house PC.

If I were Microsoft and trying to get traction on Surface, or any of the traditional PC companies hoping to hang onto hardware margins, the Chromebook category would give me the willies. These things now account for 10% of corporate and consumer PC purchases, literally coming out of no where. At the $250 price band they become semi-disposable — all the personal data is essentially in the cloud if they are lost or stepped on —  and are far lighter to tote through an airport than a traditional notebook.