'Father of the ThinkPad', Arimasa Naitoh, on the notebook’s past, present and future

Key figure behind the development of the ThinkPad shares his insight into the iconic device

Lenovo notebook business unit development president, Arimasa Naitoh

Lenovo notebook business unit development president, Arimasa Naitoh

The ThinkPad notebook, popular with businesses around the world, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

It has been a long journey not just for the iconic notebook, but also for its creator, Lenovo notebook business unit development president, Arimasa Naitoh.

Often dubbed as the “father of the ThinkPad,” Naitoh spent many sleepless nights at then IBM’s development facility in Yamato City in Japan, “where the lights never went off,” developing what would become the recognisable black notebook.

Naitoh, who released a book last year in Japan titled The ThinkPad was born this way, says the first lesson he learned following the ThinkPad’s launch two decades ago was about its durability.

“I assumed that people would handle their ThinkPad very gently, such as placing it gently on the table and opening/closing the lid slowly,” he said.

“Instead, I quickly learned how busy business users are and having no time to take care of their device.”

The original ThinkPad also had covers over all of the ports, but the development team found they would typically be gone six month later.

“With the next ThinkPad we worked on, we focused on how to make the port covers more durable,” Naitoh said.

“With the following generation we just got rid of the covers completely."

Changing hands

A lot of things have changed over the years for the ThinkPad and Naitoh, such as former owner IBM selling off the ThinkPad division to Lenovo in 2005.

While Naitoh admits that he and the team were naturally a bit anxious about the change in ownership, he was convinced that it was for the good soon after.

“The transition to Lenovo was very comfortable,” Naitoh said. “My first reaction was, ‘this is a PC company and notebooks are their core business.’”

IBM or not, the one constant with the ThinkPad is that it has established itself as a leading player in the business sector.

Even with the ThinkPad’s strong business focus, Naitoh says that the device has found popularity among regular consumers.

“In countries such as Japan, China and Taiwan, some consumers like business products because they are not designed for consumers,” he said.

In Japan in particular Naitoh says that the ThinkPad is often viewed more as a consumer product.

However, he does admit that some overseas markets want to see more consumer style lines of products, and the recently released ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been able to cross over to both business and consumer markets.

“We always do something new to expand our accessibility to customers,” Naitoh said. “Making our products look like those by other makers is not our objective, so we will continue to do things our own way.”

To the future

With the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Lenovo is throwing its gauntlet down in the already competitive Ultrabook arena.

While Naitoh says the Ultrabook standard is making many products on the market look similar, the good thing with Ultrabook is that “customers are recognising the value of the technology.”

“Personally, I appreciate Intel’s leadership in this, but at the same time we have to regularly sit down with them to keep defining what an Ultrabook is,” he said.

“The Ultrabook trend at the moment is a good one, but it’s not the only definition that exists for high end notebook PCs.”

As for what lies ahead for the ThinkPad beyond Ultrabooks, Naitoh says the legacy and productivity aspects of the notebook will not change with the next generation.

“Our first priority has always been to maintain the ThinkPad legacy, such as the keyboard, the boxy design and black colour,” he said.

Naitoh says that has been the focus up to the fourth generation, and it will be the same for the fifth.

“We will continue to define the best aspects of the ThinkPad and give the user the best productivity,” he said.

“When it comes to productivity productivity, I don’t want the user to spend energy when using the computer."

Read more of our exclusives from Japan:

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CSR in Tohoku is more than a one-time activity, says Fuji Xerox
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How Intel promoted Ultrabooks in Japan with Urutora

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