The IBM, now Lenovo, ThinkPad has long been thought to be the closest thing to the perfect laptop. This is the line that the other OEMs are typically measured against, and it just released a new hybrid product, the T400S, which is a blending of the T400 and X301 in an apparent attempt to create the best of both worlds. Let's talk a bit about the conditions that birthed the product and the Lenovo ThinkPad line in general.
ThinkPad: Iconic Line with Unique Benefits
One of the things that differentiates the ThinkPad line from all others is the historic consistency in industrial design. Going back to the early 90s when the line was owned by IBM, the ThinkPad laptop has been black, square, and differentiated on its durability and the quality of its keyboard. I'm writing this post from IBM's facility in Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, and the lobby of the building is full of iconic PC products all bearing this same consistent ID. This is both a blessing and a curse to Lenovo's ThinkPad division. As a blessing, it creates product loyalty that, in the corporate space, seems to rival Apple's in the consumer space. The curse is that the products tend not to age as visibly as competing products, and churn rates, which generate revenue profit, appear to be lower than those from competing firms.
While the division has pioneered internal technologies like hard drive protection, specialized frames, water-resistant keyboards, and special software packages contained under the brand ThinkVantage technologies, externally changes are few and far between. Recently, just changing the keyboard resulted in controversy but wouldn't have even been noticed if other vendors had done it. For the IT buyer that wants to contain capital costs and keep products in use as long as possible, this is a clear and distinct advantage. But it comes at a high cost to Lenovo, which still has to compete on price and effectively passes on this benefit for no additional cost.
The T400S Hybrid: Finding the Perfect Laptop
Each of us has different responsibilities and computing needs. The ThinkPad line is bracketed by two distinct product offerings: the ultra thin and light X-301, which optimizes on size but has performance limitations, and the T400 series, which forms the backbone of the line and is generally what people think of when they hear the name ThinkPad. Between the two products there appeared to be a gap that could be filled by a light product with the performance characteristics of a mainstream product. This is the T400S. It is 20 percent lighter than a T400, 25 percent thinner than a T400, has the same 14" outdoor viewable display selection as the T400, has the same processors and chipset as the T400, same drive options as the T400, and the same docking solutions as the T400. It has a different battery selection unique to its form factor, and an updated port out from the prior models.
The product includes one of the first multi-touch trackpads and a simplification of the notification lights from the T400. Finally, price is in line with the T400. The end result may be, for those buying in the ThinkPad line, a new benchmark product, a hybrid if you would, that combines nicely the benefits of the X-301 halo product and the T400 mainstream offering. There are no apparent sacrifices in the durability, serviceability or functionality in this new offering.
Currently, the trend in the notebook space is to have products that are highly individualized. This drives churn, can improve margins, and is being driven largely by HP, Dell and Acer. Acer and Apple are ignoring IT entirely and enjoying some of the highest growth rates in the industry. ThinkPads have not embraced this trend and are therefore much more IT focused than user focused. This is likely why ThinkPad accounts generally, though not always, have a high level of IT control while accounts that favor other lines are increasingly defined by users and line managers. Currently, the shift of P&L responsibility to line mangers is favoring the latter model, putting pressure on the ThinkPad to find a way to embrace this increasing personalization need.
ThinkPads remain the most closely tied to the IT goals of consistency, reliability and service life. The line has yet to address the increasing need for personalization and it is this last need that appears to be driving growth. For those looking at the ThinkPad line, the T400S is likely be their best, no-compromise choice, but it doesn't yet embrace personalization. Sometimes a vendor is defined as much by what it didn't do as by what it did do.