Following on from Developers on the X1 Carbon - Industrial Design, we once again speak directly with the developers.
In this second piece the Product Development Manager and Technical Project Manager leading the Yamato development team discuss the project. Both are veteran developers responsible for many X series products. The same team also led development of the original X1.
- The X1 Carbon will be the first Ultrabook™ in the ThinkPad X Series.
Tabo: This project actually wasn't based on the Ultrabook concept.
Planning for the X1 Carbon began around the end of 2010. Identifying trends such as "BYOPC (Bring Your Own PC)" and "IT Consumerization", our first goal was to create an amazing product that corporate customers would want to use and take to their workplace, rather than have given to them by the IT department.
"Portability that surpasses previous ThinkPads" was a key concept. From the early stages of planning we decided to aim for a product thinner and lighter than the original X1, and we spent a lot of time hammering out the details.
Mori: The Ultrabook specs were released towards the end of the planning stage, but we were already in compliance with most of them.
Sometimes the ThinkPad is too far ahead of the curve, making it hard to gain customer acceptance (LOL). I think we got the timing just right this time. But it was a while before the planning came together and the development phase began.
Tabo: I particularly remember that we produced a ton of design models before development started. Some of the design models were deliberately quite aggressive, with substantial changes from previous ThinkPad designs. A number of changes were also made after development started, leading to even more design models being created.
- In the last interview you mentioned that the plan was originally to create a more consumer-oriented product.
Tabo: That's correct, but in the end I think we were right to switch back to a business-oriented design.
It is currently highly regarded, including its businesslike style. I think of the X1 Carbon as a "business casual" design rather than a more staid "business" product. Something like a businessman with a jacket but no necktie. I think it's a perfect match for users who adopt the "business casual" style that is popular in the IT industry recently.
Mori: I feel that the X1 Carbon has a style that is unique among the ThinkPad Classic series.
It inherits the DNA of the original X1, and is full of features not normally found in the Classic series. I believe it's a bold product, using top-grade carbon and featuring a minimalistic connector configuration. Many improvements have also been made over of the original X1.
- So while it inherits the DNA of the original X1, it also features improvements? Can you go into more detail?
Tabo: Our plans for the original X1 were also aggressive. Thankfully it found favor with our customers.
At the time it had many things going for it, such as the thinnest body in the Classic series, a standard voltage CPU, outstanding durability through the use of Gorilla® Glass, and a stylish design with the simple and modern isolation keyboard. That said, there was still room for improvement.
The X1 Carbon is smaller, lighter, and thinner than the original X1. It also features a 14 inch LCD screen. We are particularly proud of the fact we achieved a smaller, lighter, and thinner product while using a bigger screen than the 13 inch one in the original X1.
For the X1 Carbon we also decided in the early stages to change the LCD screen, taking on board feedback from customers regarding the original X1. We opted for a high-resolution 1600 x 900 pixel LCD with a matte, anti-glare finish.
Mori: I feel that the original X1 was a bold project that indicated the "future direction of ThinkPad design".
The X1 is also part of the Classic series, so there were many requests from a wide range of corporate users. However, we felt the X1 was our best shot if we really want to show the way forward, so we took on a number of new challenges. You could say it was a product that dispelled the myth that innovation was not possible in the Classic series.
Lenovo itself is exploring new territory with the IdeaPad, so I don't think there's anything holding the ThinkPad back.
To give some insight into the original X1, we had to make some last-minute decisions due to the schedule. We even had executives review design models while they were in transit at Narita Airport. Thankfully this was not the case with the X1 Carbon, but there were a few surprises along the way.
- Surprises? That sounds intriguing. Is there anything you can tell us about the challenges you faced or development anecdotes?
Tabo: Sure. The packaging was the toughest nut to crack.
As I mentioned earlier, increasing the size of the LCD screen to 14 inches while making a smaller, lighter, thinner product was difficult to the point where we almost gave up. The Mechanical Engineering Department made a big contribution in that area. We went through an endless number of iterations, changing materials, rearranging the layout like a 3D puzzle, and filling gaps. Even so, we initially only managed to incorporate a screen the same size as the original X1.
Then, when the core team of the Mechanical Engineering Department, the Electrical Engineering Department, and the Design Department went back to the drawing board and made huge improvements, I felt like a miracle had taken place.
Mori: I think this project may have made it through troubled waters unscathed because we had luck on our side. Right to the very end, I really didn't think we could pull it off (LOL).
Allow me to share three surprises I think the whole development team would agree we encountered for the X1 Carbon.
1. The fact we actually achieved our goals
2. The changes in key members
3. A major turnaround
Unfortunately I can't go into the details of the changes in key members or the major turnaround. Suffice to say that they led to specification changes that altered the direction of the product significantly. To maintain our schedule we implemented a rather unique development process. It was not without complications. This is always the case with aggressive products, though.
- You both use test versions of the X1 Carbon that you worked so hard on. Share your honest impressions with us.
Tabo: Of course. First, I should explain why we are using a product still in development.
We carry out rigorous testing akin to torture during the normal development process, but we also use products to see if any issues crop up in everyday office situations. This is also known as "guerilla testing".
After using it I was most impressed with the keyboard. The original X1's keyboard was also held in high esteem, but this time it feels even better to the touch despite the thinner package. I've tried typing on competing Ultrabooks while researching them, but I think the X1 Carbon's keyboard is in a class of its own.
Mori: I'll keep it simple. Light and thin. That is my biggest impression.
It also fits perfectly into your hands. I think this due to the cornerless design. Last of all, it's sturdy. The body makes good use of carbon and metal materials, and is really solid.
- The overall user experience sound amazing. Do you have anything to say about the future before we wrap things up?
Tabo: I like to incorporate something new each time I work on a new product.
For aggressive products like the X1 series in particular, developer motivation is typically high, so that kind of atmosphere comes together naturally. Of course, taking on new challenges is not unique to the X1 series, and the same can be said for development of any product. My goal is to continue to develop products that our customers appreciate, with the keyword being "Pioneering".
Mitsuo Tabo holding the ThinkPad X1 Carbon
Mori: First, I want to clear my head (LOL). Each product we develop has unique aspects, so I always like to approach them with a fresh outlook.
I always aim to create projects that will make our engineers happy. Our engineers derive a lot of pleasure from customer praise, receiving prestigious awards, and establishing new technology for patents.
My role as Technical Project Manager is to guide the development team by coordinating and providing direction on a variety of things. I believe that keeping the engineers happy and maintaining a high level of team motivation is the biggest factor in a project's success.
I'd like to continue to strive to make our engineers, and above all else our customers' happy.
Naoki Mori holding the ThinkPad X1 Carbon