R Srinivasan

The lunch box which changed the world

R. Srinivasan | Updated on October 03, 2013 Published on October 03, 2013

Japan's bento box, which inspired the Thinkpad’s original design   -  BUSINESS LINE

Lenovo Thinkpad. Photo: R. Ravindran   -  THE HINDU

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If the Thinkpad, Lenovo’s bestselling laptop for business users, was a car, it would have probably been a Volvo – boxy, but safe! Instead, it has emerged as a contemporary design classic, won multiple design awards, has appeared in several Hollywood blockbusters, is on board space shuttles and is even enshrined with its own display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art!

It also continues to be the principal brand in Lenovo’s portfolio, accounting for a sizeable chunk of the nearly 50 million PCs Lenovo ships every year, and the main reason for Lenovo’s dominant brand presence in the enterprise user segment.

On October 5, the Thinkpad, once the jewel in computing giant IBM’s crown and, since 2005, that of Chinese computer maker Lenovo’s, completes 21 years as a brand, quite the senior in computer years. And, in an exception to the rule in the fast-paced world of electronics, continues to stay linked to the first ever Thinkpad in design.

So how did an unprepossessing rectangle of heavily engineered black plastic metamorphose into a classic case study in design and branding?

It all began, of course, with an idea. And the idea, oddly enough, was in a lunch box.

When computing giant IBM wanted to create a sturdy, highly portable yet powerful portable (the term laptop was yet to be invented then!) computer aimed at the business user, it went to Japan – then the world’s leader in electronics – for the design.

The Thinkpad’s design – or so goes the official lore – sprang from the elegantly simple design of the Japanese ‘bento’ box – the rectangular, multi-compartment bamboo or plastic box which housed the packed lunch of millions of Japanese ‘salarimen’.

So the base design (with the compartments for the keyboard and the numeric pad and the flip-top lid as the screen) was born. As for the brand name, it was coined from the leather-bound office pads with the word ‘Think’ embossed on it, which were given to all IBM employees.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

By the end of the 1980s, computers had started moving out of chilled windowless bunkers resembling nuclear shelters to the open space cubicles of today; and computers were changing from giant, glowing behemoths tended by white-coated acolytes to something closer to what we think of as a computer today.

When computing giant IBM first introduced a portable computer in 1986, the IBM Portable PC, it was the size of a small suitcase and weighed more than 15 kilos, despite its tiny 9-inch amber-coloured display and laughable 256KB onboard memory.

Compared to that first ‘portable’, today’s Thinkpads may appear to be from another planet – as one of them actually was, albeit in a movie. In the film Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the Decepticon-turned-Autobot named ‘Brains’ is a ThinkPad Edge!

But one thing which has not changed is the Thinkpad’s standard, rectangular design. This is not by accident. Lenovo follows a ‘design evolution’ strategy for the Thinkpad, which means that every new model has certain design linkages with its predecessors.

“The rectangular silhouette is unmistakably Thinkpad,” says David Hill, Vice-President, Design at Lenovo and the man who has led the Thinkpad design effort since 1995. The rectangular shape, he argued in his book Thinkpad Design: Spirit and Essence, was the most efficient way to package the components of a laptop. “Nearly everything inside is rectangular. The shape telegraphs Thinkpad, even if the logo is obscured. The Bento box has served Thinkpad well.”

Which is reflected in the market numbers. For the first time ever, Lenovo was named the world’s largest PC vendor, recording its highest-ever quarterly market share of 16.7 per cent, up 1.7 per cent year on year. It is also the leader worldwide in WW commercial notebook PC sales (IDC FY Q1 13/14).

In India, as per IDC’s report, Lenovo has 14.1 per cent market share overall, coming in at number three in the pecking order. But it is the leader in the business user category – what the trade calls ‘enterprise’ segment, with a 24.7 per cent share in the enterprise business in India.

But in the mutable world of electronics, the past can never be an indicator of the future. After all, Kodak and Nokia were world leaders just a few years before they collapsed. Like them, the Thinkpad’s classic laptop line is under pressure, from a changing workplace and a changing workforce.

Today, workplaces are changing into ‘BYOD” – Bring Your Own Device – environments. And workforces increasingly want devices which combine work, communication and entertainment in a single package. Where does Lenovo go in this changed environment?

“I don’t think that the needs of the enterprise customer have changed that much,” insists Rahul Agarwal, executive director (enterprise business) of Lenovo. “The enterprise customer is still looking for reliable, safe and secure computing solutions, which is what Lenovo excels in. Our numbers show that.”

Nevertheless, Lenovo is hedging its bets. It launched its first batch of tablets in October 2011 in India. It has split its tablet line into two, with the Thinkpad brand focused on enterprise users and the Ideapad brand for individuals. It has also got into the smartphones segment, launching its first series of smartphones in November last year.

Whether Lenovo successfully straddles the convergence upheaval in the digital marketplace remains to be seen. After all, most of IBM’s competitors in 1992 either do not exist any more, or have long exited the computer business.

But Agarwal is confident. He reminds us that Lenovo is a Chinese company. “And being Chinese means thinking long-term.” That long-term thinking was evident in 2005, when Lenovo took over the brand from IBM. While many observers predicted a rapid demise of the ‘Made in China’ version, Lenovo kept the focus sharply on Thinkpad as a brand, kept its focus on the enterprise segment. And thrived.

Published on October 03, 2013
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