NASA’s one tough customer, but its demands helped shape the ThinkPad: Lenovo

PC vendor sheds light on its top tier client and how their significant needs helped shape the ThinkPad’s durability

Lenovo customer centres senior worldwide competitive analyst, Kevin Beck

Lenovo customer centres senior worldwide competitive analyst, Kevin Beck

The ThinkPad has some great users, says Lenovo customer centres senior worldwide competitive analyst, Kevin Beck, and by that he means they are hardest to deal with.

Beck made the remark when speaking about Lenovo’s marque ThinkPad client, NASA.

“Not that the people at NASA aren’t nice, but they have the most ridiculous requirements out of anyone in the world,” he said.

“No one puts a notebook through the same things that they do.”

When IBM closed its first contract with NASA in 1998 to use ThinkPads on the international space station, the vendor’s lawyers were required to put a clause in the contract.

“That clause was to say that there was ‘no on site service,’” Beck said.

Reliability was and is a primary concern for NASA, and Beck says that price certainly is not, as it costs over US$10000 per kilo to lift the amount to orbit.

“Their number one concern is that they last,” Beck said.

“Because of the shipping charges, that’s why the notebooks were up there for seven to eight years, so they just had to last.”

A good deal

While NASA may be the client, Beck said in many ways it was a “reciprocal arrangement.”

For one, the ThinkPad team learnt a lot and gained access to what they test for, so they could design to meet their tests.

“This is an arrangement beneficial to us and improves our product in the long term, just because we have to meet the needs of this one specific customer,” he said.

“This is how we improve our ThinkPads generation after generation.”

At the same time, Beck said it is equally important to understand what your customers are going to do with your machines as they are going to do to the machine.

“Because if you are not designing it for the environment that customers are going to use in, then you are not designing it for them,” he said.

The years of testing and research the ThinkPad team has done has made them realise that it is not only a single catastrophic event that makes a machine fail.

“The highest number I heard was from a company that owned a bunch of industrial manufacturing plants was about eight per cent a year,” Beck said.

“It’s normally between two to three per cent a year.”

While some of the notebooks get dropped down stairs or run over by cars, Beck said the bigger culprit is just the normal usage cycle, often mixed in with worker anger taken out on the device.

“The little bumps and bangs add up that add up to a total failure,” he said.

“The reason we do torture testing is to try and understand that.”

Beck added the genesis of the ThinkPad’s whole design philosophy can be brought down to an even simpler reason.

“Our engineers got their feelings hurt by the way people treated the first generation of ThinkPads,” he said.

A classic look

The ThinkPad might be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but Beck says that the team behind it did not necessarily know back in 1992 that the product was going to last for 20 years.

However, he said they did have a specific intent from the start to build something that would “always be classic.”

“They wanted to design it once, allow room for change and improvement, but have something that would ultimately be seen as classic,” Beck said.

Even back then, he said the team was getting pressure to make the ThinkPad in white and beige, but they decided they would different from anything that was available at the time and make it black.

“I always tell people it’s like a James Bond tuxedo,” Beck said.

He added there is a reason, in retrospect, why James Bond did not wear the typical clothes that people wore in the 70’s.

“They had the sense to keep the guy in a black tuxedo for many years to make him look classic,” Beck said.

“So that’s how I view the ThinkPad.”

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