ThinkPad History Lesson: The Day the 700c Left the Nest

The author at left with Lenovo Malaysia’s Sunny Ooi (center) and Arimasa Naitoh, store opening in Kuala Lumpur

"I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine." (Caskie Stinnett)

I have a love-hate relationship with aphorisms but this one kind of nails my attitude about travel and life in general. I know a lot of people--successful people—who thrive on routine. They love it. Some of them refer to it (semi-humorously) as being "ritual-oriented." That's not me.

I do occasionally get into the habit of ordering the same couple of favorite dishes at some restaurants, but most of the time, I'm not big on routine. Messy desk, completely un-alphabetized shelves of books, CDs, DVDs--you get the picture.

On the other hand, I totally get into the process of engineering and development.  There's lots of repetition, process and rigor involved but for some indefinable reason, I love it.  Which goes a long way towards explaining why I always look forward to visiting our ThinkPad development labs in Japan.

In the early 2000s, I spent three years on assignment in Tokyo. I had also been travelling frequently to Yamato for years before that, so it's home away from home for me. On a trip to Japan, Malaysia and India last fall, I spent a lot of time with Naitoh-san, the head of ThinkPad development in Yamato. He was the engineering lead for the very first ThinkPad--the 700C--back in 1992.

I always learn a lot from working with Naitoh-san, and I want to share a story about him. We were talking to a group of journalists in Malaysia when one asked, "In your history of ThinkPad development, what is the single biggest thing you wish you had known beforehand?"
Naitoh-san thought about it for a few seconds and began to explain. In the early days of ThinkPad (1992), his team was starting from the ground up and designing an entirely new line of notebook PCs.

Of course, there were very stringent requirements for function, form, weight and size as well as quality, reliability and durability. He believes they met, and in many cases exceeded, what they were asked to do in designing this new product. The 700c worked well and was well-received in the market. Their baby had left the nest and was flying reliably around the world.

However, when they began discussions with the service and support team, gathering "lessons learned" to fold into the requirements for the next generation, they discovered something. Without indulging in hyperbole here, it really hit them in their hearts and gut: customers weren't always taking good care of their baby.

ThinkPads got dropped, mishandled, smashed, run over by cars and had drinks spilled on them.  A small number of the total perhaps, but the fact that their little bundles of pride and joy were being mistreated, even in small numbers, led the Yamato team to adopt a philosophy that still guides them today.

At an emotional level—as well as a rational engineering level—they collectively decided that they were going to build the best, most reliable, highest quality product they could, one that would withstand (or even anticipate) the horrible things that might happen to it in the real world.
In future posts, I'll talk about some of the things they've come up with over the years that grew out of this philosophy–the ThinkPad roll cage, numerous hard drive protection technologies, new materials for the external casings of the ThinkPad, etc.

Looking back on it, I love that the stream of new ideas the team came up with over the years seemed to come not just from a corporate place but as an almost visceral reaction to one simple reality: products must constantly change if they are to stay ahead of the rigors of real life.