The announcement of the ThinkPad Tablet 2 has elicited a strong response. The Tablet 2 is the first ThinkPad Windows 8 tablet device. Here we will present interviews with the developers over a number of articles. First up, the Product Development Manager and Technical Project Manager leading the Yamato development team discuss the project.
- In the ThinkPad Tablet interview, you said there was a need for a thinner, lighter Windows version.
Kinoshita: I am glad we got there in the end. The Tablet 2 is an evolution of the original Tablet, resulting in a much smaller, thinner and lighter product, and I am confident that it improves the user experience.
The original Tablet was an Android platform, making it different from the user experience of a notebook PC, and it was a whole new world for me as well. I still think we were able to convey that "this is a ThinkPad Tablet".
However, we knew from the time we were developing the original product that there were many areas we could improve on, and for its successor the entire Yamato team wanted to create something closer to our ideal product.
I think the Tablet 2 is a product made possible because we went through a wide range of experiences, including the experience we had with the first Tablet.
- Speaking of going through a range of experiences, you made an Android version of the Tablet 2 before the Windows version, right?
Kinoshita: Correct. Both the original Tablet and the Tablet 2 made it to market on the back of other projects in the wings that weren't put into production. For the first Tablet this was a notebook PC product called SkyLight, and for the Tablet 2 this was an Android tablet we worked on three or four months earlier.
ThinkPad Tablet 2 and Android tablet
- Can you give some specific examples of where the experience you gained from the Android tablet was put to use?
Kinoshita: The packaging. We applied our experience to make a thinner and lighter product, which we put particular emphasis on. In other words, the Tablet 2 is as small, thin, and light as it is because we were able to apply feedback from what we learned through the earlier project. The architecture itself is slightly different from the Android tablet, but the magnesium inner frame enables a thinner, lighter, more robust product. I think the packaging is far more sophisticated than the original Tablet.
- So, how is the packaging superior to the tablet devices of competitors?
Kinoshita: With a thickness of about 9.8mm and a weight of about 570g (about 590g when fitted with the digitizer pen), it probably doesn't have an overwhelming competitive advantage. But it is currently the world's lightest 10.1 inch Atom-based Windows 8 tablet. I also think that it provides a very satisfying overall user experience that only ThinkPad can offer, with good OS compatibility and a digitizer pen.
There was another major factor. Namely, the benefits we reaped through Microsoft's Integrated Development Program (IDP) partnership program.
You might even say that the Tablet 2 was jointly-developed by Microsoft, Intel, and Lenovo. We received a level of support beyond that of other companies. To be honest, the IDP itself involved a lot of negotiation, and this was a source of pressure during the project, but we learned a lot.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to introduce a Windows 8 tablet device ahead of our competitors... Dealing with cutting-edge technology involves a certain amount of difficulty, but I believe we have raised the bar for ThinkPad quality.
- Constant evolution seems to be the mission for ThinkPad. Incidentally, just like the original Tablet, there are lot of optional extras available, aren't there?
Miyamura: Yes. The dedicated options for the original Tablet were well received, so we planned for a wide range of options from the beginning. The keyboard folio in particular is now a lot easier to use than the original Tablet.
First of all, the original was wired, but now a wireless Bluetooth connection is used, opening up a host of new possibilities. Also, in addition to the two TrackPoint buttons on the left and right for the original Tablet, the Tablet 2 has a third button in the center, like the notebook PC ThinkPad. This extends functionality for things like scrolling.
The Tablet 2 can also be fitted to the back edge of the keyboard folio. With the original Tablet, you needed a soft case to use the tablet and keyboard together. The Tablet 2 can be used like a notebook PC with the keyboard folio, making it more convenient.
- I hear you put a lot of thought into other areas as well, like the size of the keyboard folio.
Miyamura: That's right. We wanted it to have the same vertical and horizontal dimensions as the tablet, for a compact design that fits perfectly even when put in a soft case. This is one of the main reasons that the keyboard folio was also developed here at Yamato.
Tablet 2 and Keyboard folio in the soft case
We actually had plans to give the keyboard folio richer, eye-catching functionality based on suggestions from the Design and User Experience departments, but we abandoned these plans because the cost/quality balance didn't work out.
- I saw a mock-up of that. It looked amazing.
Miyamura: Development progressed right up to the prototype stage... The functionality has appeal, so I hope we can introduce it one day.
- By the way, why was a dedicated keyboard necessary despite there being many tablet-compatible keyboards from third parties?
Miyamura: For the typing-feel and TrackPoint, or in other words, to maintain ThinkPad quality.
Other companies base theirs on keyboard manufacturers' products and release them pretty much as-is, but we always develop ThinkPad keyboards from scratch. TrackPoint is a unique function, so of course we had to design our own, but the typing feel has also been fine-tuned. We've had a great response to the Tablet 2's keyboard folio so far, with about one in three customers purchasing one.
However, the TrackPoint uses the same optical technology as the original, which makes a thinner product possible. It might take a little getting used to for people who always use the TrackPoint on a notebook PC. We'd like to once again look into using the standard TrackPoint for the next generation.
- I look forward to seeing that. So, it seems you're already using Tablet 2 a lot. How are you finding it?
Kinoshita: This is all I ever need to have with me at meetings now. As usual, I spend a lot of my time in meetings, so I'm happy that the battery life is so good.
When I head back to my desk, I connect it to a dock, as well as a large external monitor via HDMI, so I can sometimes get through my day's work without using a notebook PC.
- Won't that have an effect on notebook PC sales?
Kinoshita: I don't think it will. Lenovo is currently promoting the "PC+" concept, which envisions a world with PCs at the core co-existing with tablets and smartphones.
PCs are good for content creation, while tablets and smartphones are good for content consumption, so each has a place. Tablet 2 has many optional accessories, so one of its features is the ability to straddle both of these categories like I do. I think right now we need a group of products to fill the gap between dedicated notebook PCs and dedicated tablets.
- In closing, can you tell us if there's anything you'd like to bring to fruition in future Tablet products?
Kinoshita: I think that expandability is the next important thing to focus on. I'd like to expand the range of options, to offer more usage flexibility.
Windows Blue will also serve to improve the user experience. Meanwhile, the packaging is already highly refined, so dramatic advancements may be difficult in the future. However, we are confident we will remain the "best-of-breed" in the next generation.
We also have one other big idea, but that's a secret (LOL).
Hidenori Kinoshita holding the Tablet 2
Miyamura: Personally, I'd like a 7-inch version. I find small, light devices that can be held in one hand appealing. Women have so many things to carry already (LOL).
The Tablet 2 is designed for business use, but it is such a good product that I think it will also sell as a consumer device. One day I'd love to release versions utilizing cute colors that appeal to women. For example, colorful smart covers. Oh, I also think black is a great color, though (LOL).
Kaoru Miyamura holding the Tablet 2 Keyboard Folio