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From IBM to Lenovo: the ThinkPad through the ages

Happy 20th birthday, ThinkPad.

The ThinkPad laptop - now owned by Lenovo - has taken on iconic status in its two decades of existence, becoming an office mainstay for businesses all over the world. The ThinkPad journey (pictured below; click to enlarge) started at IBM in 1992, when Tom Hardy, Richard Sapper and Kazuhiko Yamakazi designed the simple, rectangular black box with that trademark bright red TrackPoint sitting in the middle of the keyboard. It stayed under the watchful eye of IBM until 2005, when Lenovo purchased the firm’s personal computer business and the ThinkPad brand with it.

David Hill, who joined the ThinkPad team in 1995 and is now Vice President of Lenovo Corporate Identity and Design, revealed (opens in new tab) in 2006 that the ThinkPad’s form was inspired by the Bento box; the recognisable straight-edged containers used to serve lunch in Japan, typically at takeaway joints.

(opens in new tab)“The concept of a thin black box was, and continues to be perfect for a notebook PC and I am proud we've been able to keep the initial concept at the core of the ThinkPad's design from its introduction in the early '90s until today,” said Hill in a blog at the time. “Can you think of any product whose package concept hasn't changed in more than 20 years? While some very niche products may have remained constant; in our industry we change components and technologies almost twice a year, but the fundamental design concept at the heart of the ThinkPad has always remained the same.”

There have nevertheless been some subtle adaptions made to the line over the years, as laptop firsts such as the integration of CD-ROM in 1994, fingerprint readers in 2004 and built-in wireless WAN in 2006 were introduced. Scroll down to see the full design timeline and feel free to raise a glass to sound laptop functionality as we mark the ThinkPad’s 20th anniversary.


The ThinkPad was first introduced to the tech world in 1992 at the now-expired Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. It came in three series allegedly analogous to the BMW car range, with each line indicating its market segment. The ThinkPad 300 was the budget model, the 500 midrange, and the 700 high-end.


A year later IBM delivered the ThinkPad 750c, and doesn’t she look pretty. The 750c has bragging rights over its younger siblings for being the first ThinkPad to reach outer space on a NASA mission.


The mid-1990s saw an intriguing piece of hardware innovation incorporated into the ThinkPad design, even if it hasn’t exactly caught on. Known as the ‘butterfly’ notebook, the ThinkPad 701c featured a full-size, pop-up keyboard that was wider than the laptop itself once released from its enclosure. The idea was appealing in an age when many didn’t want to compromise on the full size typing space enjoyed on a normal desktop, though our eventual acceptance of working on more compact devices has seen the butterfly flutter away with little sign of a return. Shame, when you think we can no longer woo members of a board meeting as easily as this (opens in new tab).


The sleeker looking ThinkPad 770 claimed another industry milestone for the range in 1997, becoming the first laptop to feature built-in DVD ROM.


Seven years ago, Lenovo acquired IBM’s Personal Computing Division and the Chinese firm got its hands on one of the market’s prize jewels in the process with the ThinkPad. Lenovo’s understated logo change from this version at the time of the takeover in 2005 has perhaps been reflected in its stewardship of the laptop. Recruiting ThinkPad design chief David Hill ensured innovation was introduced carefully, without radically redesigning the familiar form.


This unusual looking ThinkPad Reverse Edition may seemingly fly in the face of that last assertion, but beneath the tan-coloured exterior the fundamentals of the device remained the same. This model was developed in collaboration with Hill’s co-designer on the original ThinkPad, Richard Sapper.


But despite the general adherence to gradual design change, the ThinkPad team hasn't been afraid to throw in a left field feature from time to time. The 'butterly' of the noughties was probably the ThinkPad W700ds, which included a dual-screen design. The additional pull-out display measures up similarly to a tablet at 10.6in diagonally and allows the user to recreate the office experience on the move. But like the butterfly, the function hasn't exactly sparked a series of copy-cat designs in the industry.


Forced to move with the market and embrace greater mobility, Lenovo has taken the ThinkPad brand to tablets. This year saw the launch of the ThinkPad Tablet 2; one of the first business-class tablets designed for Windows 8. Running that hotly-anticipated software from Microsoft, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 will be hoping to make the same impact in the enterprise market as its traditional notebook predecessors.


The natural move towards lighter devices for mobile working has brought the proliferation of Ultrabooks as well as tablets, and Lenovo has increased its stake in this market by refreshing 2011’s ThinkPad X1 with the new super-light ThinkPad X1 Carbon. This ultrabook weighs just 1.36kg and is a mere 18mm thick. Riyad is busy testing the ThinkPad X1 Carbon right now and will be publishing the review very soon, but suffice to say, he already doesn't want to give the sample back.

With the range evolving with the times and now incorporating such modern design elements, who's to say the famous ThinkPad, in one form or another, won't be residing in a corner of your office in another 20 years time...

Will began working life as a technology journalist at ITProPortal as Senior Staff Writer. He's worked as a Copywriter, then Creative Lead across video, social, email, web and print. He is currently a Senior Content Strategist at Zone.