Quarter of a century ago, in 1992, IBM revealed a magical black box that would be treasured by thousands.
Quickie note: This post commemorates the 25th anniversary of the ThinkPad. Therefore, I’ll be discussing the history and design of the ThinkPad. You can also read much of the information here.
IBM has been known as the leading innovator in the computing industry since the 1950s. In the 1980s, their Personal Computers (and later the PS/2) revolutionized the way we compute by forming a basis on which all modern PCs are made and used. In 1992, IBM created the ThinkPad line of computers.
Before the ThinkPad
In 1981, IBM introduced the Personal Computer. While it wasn’t the first microcomputer on the market – rather, it was far from the first (Microcomputer Mania occurred in 1977) – it was an important introduction to the microcomputer industry. The PC, designed by a team led by Don Estridge in Boca Raton, Florida, was built using readily available “off-the-shelf” parts, which included its operating system: MS-DOS (or PC-DOS, a branded variant of MS-DOS.) Due to its construction type and the operating system license agreement between Microsoft and IBM, the PC was easily cloned. This led to the term of “PC-clone”, “IBM-clone”, or simply just “clone.” The clones were rampant by the late 1980s, and many companies that still produce PCs today arose out of the cloning business, including Dell, Acer, and many others.
IBM still held their ground and were trusted by bigger businesses and those who wanted quality and were willing to payer a higher price for a genuine product and a large company to back it up. By 1984, IBM introduced sucessors to the original PC, including the PC-XT (Xtended Technology), PC-AT (Advanced Technology), and the ill-fated PCjr. In 1986, IBM introduced the PC Convertible.
The PC Convertible was the first official PC portable. Tipping the scales at a whopping 13 pounds, it was much bigger than the laptops we have today. However, it introduced many firsts other than being the first portable PC: one of which was the 3.5″ floppy disk drive. However, computers – including portables – would continue to grow as technology grew.
The PS/2 – not PlayStation/2 – was the updated version of the PC. The acronym was short for Personal System/2, and this family of computers was introduced in April 1987.
While the PS/2 was similar in many ways to its PC ancestor, the PS/2 differed in many ways. The PS/2 introduced the “Microchannel” architecture, which was a short-lived expansion bus introduced alongside the PS/2 family. The PS/2 also introduced something new that is still used on many PCs today: the PS/2 ports. Yes, those lovely green and purple ports found on many PCs throughout the years got their start on the IBM PS/2. The most famous PS/2 keyboard was shipped with PS/2 computers: the infamous IBM Model M.
The PS/2 also introduced the official use of 3.5″ floppy disk drives on a desktop, from the factory. The PS/2 gave rise to the IBM operating system OS/2. The IBM PS/2 family came to an end in 1995 with the end of the PS/2e and PS/ValuePoint lines.
The PS/2 Luggables
While the PS/2 line was introduced in April 1987, it wasn’t until 1989 before a portable PS/2 would replace the PC-Convertible that was introduced in 1986. The first PS/2 replacement, the P70, was very different from portable computers of today.
The P70 wasn’t your typical laptop. The P70, called a “Portable Model 70”, was really a luggable. Many portables of this era were called luggables due to their sheer size and weight, and lack of a battery. The P70, and its newer and more expensive cousin – the P75, both could only be operated on AC power and had to be “lugged” around like a suitcase. Therefore, the name luggable stuck. The P70 and P75 were introduced the same year as the Apple Macintosh Portable, which was powered by a sealed lead acid battery (like the one in your car or UPS.) However, the Mac Portable failed in the market place due to its expensive price tag, the unreliability, the heavy weight, and a hard-to-read screen. Possibly a future post detailing the Portable and comparing it to today’s aluminum MacBooks?
Throughout the PS/2 years, there were also smaller notebook versions. The N33 and N51 (N standing for “Notebook”) were direct inspirations for the first ThinkPad: the 700c.
The First ThinkPads
The first ThinkPads were introduced in 1992. There were three models: the 300, 700, and 700c. These models drew inspiration from the PS/2 notebooks, although the design language was different from the PS/2 notebooks.
The PS/2 notebooks shared a common design language with the rest of the PS/2 family: grey case and “IBM blue” accents. The ThinkPad, on the other hand, was different. The first ThinkPads had a dark-grey (almost black) case with “IBM blue” accents. Some models included a scarlet orange as the color for some other accents, like the color of the infamous TrackPoint.
The reasoning for the color change is that IBM industrial designers wanted the ThinkPad to resemble a bento lunchbox.
ThinkPads in Space
Early on, in 1993, the IBM ThinkPad T55c was chosen by NASA to be used on the International Space Station (ISS), making it the first laptop in space.
(Interesting fact: The “c” in 755c and 700c stands for color.)
IBM to Lenovo Transition
After the PS/2 line ended officially in 1992 (giving rise to the PS/2e and PS/VP), IBM experimented with other PCs. You can read more about those other models (including the Aptiva) here.
The 1990s were a hard time for IBM, as the ThinkPad was one of just a few products keeping the company afloat. This greatly affected the PC Division, although it continued to innovate and “lead the way” by making technological processes, such as making the ThinkPad the first mass-produced laptop to feature a CD-ROM drive internally.
At the turn of the millennium, IBM released the NetVista and ThinkCentre lines. Both lines shared the same “Think” design language used by the ThinkPad, although in a desktop form factor.
By 2005, IBM wanted to focus on higher fruits on the tree, rather than the low-hanging fruit. This included selling its PC Division to Lenovo, a Chinese PC manufacturer. This included the ThinkPad, ThinkCentre, manufacturing and design facilities, and designs/tooling/literature for previous and current IBM PC products. Many top executives in the IBM PC division also switched ships.
To this day, Lenovo continues to produce the ThinkPad and ThinkCentre line. The Chinese company also picked up IBM’s server lineup along the way in 2009, although IBM’s POS (point-of-sale) division went to Toshiba in 2012.
Why is it Important?
The ThinkPad shares a similarity to the Apple Mac lineup (specifically the MacBook series) by being followed by a long line of faithful followers. Many cite the high-quality and durability, while others cite the expand-ability for being the reason the computers have a long following.
In the same manner the PC and PS/2 lines developed many important innovations to the PC industry, the ThinkPad has also shared the role in being a key innovative product. The TrackPoint, internal CD-ROM, ease of switching drives, tool-less design have all primarily came from the ThinkPad series.
While it can be argued that the ThinkPad line has went downhill in quality since the IBM/Lenovo transition, many still believe that the ThinkPad line is a high-quality piece of technology that is superior to other PCs.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Most are internal, as I reviewed some of my old pages on the main site while writing this post.