ThinkPad enthusiasts will likely know that at the very beginning of the history of ThinkPad, black was not the only colour used for these iconic machines. As hard as it might be to believe there do exist Beige/Pebble Gray ThinkPads, it is a strange sight to behold. You can tell by looking at it that the hard work and consideration that Richard Sapper and Kazuhiko Yamazaki put into the design is impacted when the machine isn’t the colour it was designed to be. The Pebble Gray colour choice was available on several models, not just the 700C.

According to the IBM Mobile Systems Hardware Maintenance Manual Volume 2: ThinkPad Computers April 1995the following models had “gray” part options that were designated “For Germany.” They are listed below:

  • IBM ThinkPad 700 and 700C
  • IBM ThinkPad 720 and 720C
  • IBM ThinkPad 750, 750P, 750Cs, 750Ce
  • IBM ThinkPad Dock I
  • IBM ThinkPad 300 Monochrome (See PSREF below)

It is worth noting that the different colour parts are shared between some models. For example, the 700 and 720 shares the same housing components.

So where and why do these machines exist? Let me try and offer as complete of an answer as I can using the information I have collected, some of it recently.

The “Why?” question was partially answered by Arimasa Naitoh during the 20th Anniversary of ThinkPad.

The ThinkPad models in the 1990’s had documentation stating that they are to be made in black cases, in accordance with Richard Sapper’s guidelines set in his collaboration with the Boca Raton Team. Why were there variations from this, where, for instance, the 700/ C, 720C and 300 are in grey?

Naitoh-San: In the 1990’s, we had the retail models of ThinkPad painted in grey to be distinguished from the original enterprise models.

Happy 20th birthday, ThinkPad! Lenovo Forums Post

Official IBM documentation of the Beige/Pebble Gray ThinkPad is spotty at best. In the Personal Systems Reference IBM ThinkPad Notebooks 1992 to 2001 – withdrawn January 2001 – Version 214, the only model not listed as being offered in black was the ThinkPad 300 monochrome model and it was listed as “Charcoal grey” (page 4) as opposed to black. We know from the Hardware Maintenance Manuals from above that there was a more comprehensive offering of ThinkPad in Beige/Gray. This is likely to do with the markets they were sold—more on that in just a moment.

To answer the “Where?” part of the question, we can look at the keyboards and see that nearly all of the photographed examples have one item in common and that is a QWERTZ keyboard layout. I found one example sporting a French European keyboard layout. Both of these keyboard layouts are exclusive to Western/Central Europe and the QWERTZ layout is often simply referred to as the German keyboard layout. Now, this raises an interesting and somewhat plausible connection to the interview I did with Tom Hardy where he discusses the challenges he had with German DIN standards and IBM Germany at the time. See the video below for that whole story.

It is impossible to know how many of these machines were produced but it is highly likely the German DIN standards of the time had an impact on their creation. If Naitoh is correct in the above statement, where the retail models were designated that colour, that seems counter to the requirements of the German standards which would require business/enterprise machines to be beige or gray, not the other way around. If IBM Germany was initially unwilling to pay for the additional colour as Tom Hardy stated, it leaves a bit of a mystery of who was bankrolling the painting change and for what market.

Here is a possibility of how all this comes together by working under the assumption that all the information we have is accurate.

Firstly, as Tom Hardy stated in the interview, the section of the German DIN standards that did not allow computers to be black was revoked sometime after the release of the ThinkPad 700C, this would mean that black could be used for Enterprise machines as Naitoh states in the interview. If the DIN standard was no longer required however then why spend the money to create the gray models for a German market that would no longer require them?

Changing standards takes time and I suspect between Tom Hardy leaving IBM and German businesses slowly moving away from the DIN Standard took just over a year. David Hill also mentioned that recalled some pushback against changing the standards to allow for black machines. If the last ThinkPad that was offered in gray was made in November of 1993 (began manufacture), the standard likely would have been revoked around that time. Some German businesses would be able/willing to overlook the standards and buy the black machine regardless, however, others might have not had that flexibility and the pebble gray was brought in to meet their needs. Perhaps IBM Germany just passed on the cost in the price of the machine. 

After the product lifecycle was complete, it wouldn’t need to offer the gray/beige machines afterwards, standardizing the line and reducing manufacturing costs. Perhaps any remaining inventory was sold off as retail units as Naitoh stated in the interview above. What we can say for certain is, after 1994, no ThinkPads were made in the pebble gray/beige colour.

David Hill also stated in the book “ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue” there were other challenges to making ThinkPad the classic black we know today:

“There were a lot of barriers to getting the original IBM ThinkPad design approved. Many were opposed to using black as the color of the notebook. At the time, black was very radical in personal computing, even though it was accepted in earlier computer products. If you went back and looked at the IBM System 360 mainframe from the 1960s, it was primarily black. It was in the computer room behind glass windows and was supposed to look outstanding. The black color allowed clients to show off their prize possession to visitors.

“But personal computers weren’t black at the time. That’s because we wanted to make PCs fit naturally into the office so they wouldn’t be noticed. So, we made all of them in pearl white, a sort of cream color that no one would notice. But, then along comes the ThinkPad, and we wanted to make a bold statement that was just the opposite. We wanted everyone to notice it, so we adopted black. A lot of people objected to our using black as the color of ThinkPad, thinking it wasn’t like ‘IBM.’ Eventually everyone saw it as something that would really differentiate IBM.

-“ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue” by Deborah A. Dell and J. Gerery  Purdy, Ph.D.

What do you think about these ThinkPads? Have you ever seen one in person? Let me know by @ me on Twitter. As always, if any new information is acquired, I will update this article accordingly.

A Sticker

If you are like me, you have spent some time looking through Hardware Maintenance Manuals for ThinkPads. It was actually while looking at the HMM for the T41 to disassemble and remove the WLAN card that I noted some interesting references to LG-IBM branding. Specifically, stickers were to be placed over any replacement parts bearing the ThinkPad branding for the South Korean market.

One of many references to the LG-IBM models in the T40 HMM.
LG-IBM R40.
Photo generously provided by Hidde J.

A friend and avid ThinkPad collector Tasurinchi shared an article with me that mentioned the breakup of the deal. This was clearly the tip of the iceberg of an interesting story. We both knew about the Acer partnership where Acer was contracted out to build several laptops under the ThinkPad brand. However, it would appear that the ThinkPad R40 and R40e (pictured above) were built in South Korea in LG owned factories. The sticker located on the bottom of my R40 confirms this (Made in Korea) and the schematics as discovered by Thinkpads.com forum user Screamer found the manufacturers were “LG Gryphon” and “LG D3 Entry” respectively for these two machines.

Bottom label showcasing the LG-IBM branding.
Photo generously provided by Hidde J.

So where did it all begin?

A Partnership

In 1996, IBM entered into a partnership with LG to break into the Korean market. The arrangement created LG-IBM and saw IBM owning 51% of the company controlling the manufacturing and marketing of PCs while LG’s 49% was focused on other consumer electronics. This allowed IBM to break into the market, shipping their PC solutions and it gave LG an excellent opportunity to learn everything it could from IBM.

The LG-IBM PC LKB 0107 was seen at a thrift store. Photo by moghismv (https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/comments/jegu7j/anybody_know_how_much_this_keyboard_is_worth_lg/)
Top case of R40.
Photo generously provided by Hidde J.
The top case of an i-Series ThinkPad with the LG-IBM sticker. From Kbench.com

 

A Scandal

In 2004 the announcement came that the two companies would be splitting off, each essentially retaining their own rights to their respective properties. IBM would retain their rights to all of their trademarked properties like ThinkPad and LG would continue developing their own line of laptops called the Xnote. Interestingly enough, both IBM, LG-IBM and LG were targets of a bribery scandal that both parties claimed was unrelated to the announcement to split.

The two companies said the separation was unrelated to the indictments early this year of three officials of LG IBM and three from IBM’s Korea unit on charges of bribing government officials in order to win contracts to supply computer parts and services.

After the indictments were issued, IBM said that it had dismissed its three officials and that the three from LG IBM were no longer working there. The three former IBM Korea employees were convicted by a Seoul court in February, according to Reuters news agency. – Wall Street Journal September 15, 2004

The company was hit with a bribery scandal early this year. Former executives of IBM Korea have been jailed for bribing government clients and rigging bids, while officials of LG Electronics were fined. – Korea JoongAng Daily August 30, 2004

While these types of scandals weren’t unique to LG or IBM and weren’t likely directly related to the ending of the partnership, the details of these bribery scandals need to be read to be believed.

From 1998 to 2003, over $207,000 USD was paid in cash or gifts to officials by IBM-Korea and LG-IBM. These payments were delivered in large LG-IBM branded envelopes to shopping bags and exchanged in locations including but not limited to parking lots near the managers’ and officials’ places of work or home and on one occasion a parking lot of a local Japanese restaurant. All of these bribes were targeted at individuals making purchase decisions, ensuring that LG-IBM would win the contracts. These contracts were worth tens of millions of dollars leading to an “improper gift” of $9,546USD landing a contract valued at $1.3 million USD. IBM-China also had similar issues with bribery. For more details, see this document which outlines the details of these scandals. 

There is a more likely reason for the end of the partnership beyond these issues.

A Deal

During this time, IBM was in active talks with both Texas Pacific Group and Lenovo to sell off IBM’s PC division. Dell was also a contender for a brief amount of time. IBM CEO Samuel j. Palmisano the summer of 2004 was hammering out a complex deal with Yang Yuanqing (Lenovo) and it isn’t too hard to imagine that part of the preparations for negotiations would have involved complete ownership of control of all the markets IBM was present. This would be especially true for a purchasing company that was already established in that area. This would mean that LG-IBM would need to be renegotiated or simply cease to exist. It isn’t too hard to see which makes more sense to both parties to create a clean and tidy deal.

IBM would sell Lenovo PCs through its sales force and distribution network. IBM also would provide services for Lenovo PCs—and allow Lenovo to use the vaunted IBM brand name for five years. In turn, Lenovo, leveraging its connections with the government’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, would help IBM in the fast-growing China market. – The Race for Perfect: Inside the Quest to Design the Ultimate Portable Computer, Steve Hamm

An Ending

So overall the historic deal between IBM and LG seemed to be mutually beneficial to both parties. IBM gained access to another market (under a different brand) and LG gained access to IBM’s information and experience. When it came time for IBM to sell its PC Division though, it was clear that IBM would need to distance itself from IBM-Korea and LG-IBM as quickly as possible to ensure that the scandals and exclusive access to the South Korean market wouldn’t sour any potential deal with an interested party.

But what about the penalties for the previously mentioned scandals? Who had to take responsibility?

Ultimately that would fall to IBM. While they didn’t own several of the assets that would have been involved, it makes no sense for the new owners to be fined for the mistakes of the previous owners.

On March 18, 2011, without admitting or denying the SEC‘s allegations, IBM consented to the entry of a final judgment that permanently enjoins the company from violating the books and records and internal control provisions of the FCPA. In addition, IBM consented to pay disgorgement of $5,300,000, $2,700,000 in prejudgment interest, and a $2,000,000 civil penalty.

Steps Taken by State Parties to Implement and Enforce the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in
International Business Transactions
AS OF JUNE 2011 WORKING GROUP ON BRIBERY MEETING

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

It would appear the LG and ThinkPad story is not over yet. Fast forward to the year 2021 and it seems that LG might have run afoul with Lenovo with LG’s ThinQ branding coming a bit too close to the well-established Think branding they inherited from IBM. To read the case details, including court documents and its status, follow this link. or you can head right to the source at the United States Trademark and Patent Office.

While many people have heard of Moore’s Law, which I’ve discussed in a previous article, fewer might know about the potentially even more important Wirth’s Law.

Wirth’s Law states that software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware is becoming faster. A real-world example of this is illustrated below:

In a 2008 article in InfoWorld, Randall C. Kennedy, formerly of Intel, introduces this term using successive versions of Microsoft Office between the year 2000 and 2007 as his premise. Despite the gains in computational performance during this time period according to Moore’s law, Office 2007 performed the same task at half the speed on a prototypical year 2007 computer as compared to Office 2000 on a year 2000 computer.

Kennedy, Randall C. (2008-04-14).“Fat, fatter, fattest: Microsoft’s kings of bloat”.InfoWorld.

This is one of the reasons that the RAM that got humanity to the Moon wouldn’t even be able to load a single tab in Chrome. The issue of software development is more complex than a direct comparison giving us all the answers and some even go as far as to call modern software ‘fatware.’ Have you ever stopped to think how much of the program that is in front of you, or hidden within the code is actually needed to do the job you are asking that program to do? Wirth pointed to both of these as being contributing issues to the expansion of software that didn’t have a significant increase in function. Did the above example take into account any significant feature changes between those two versions of Office? One point that should be mentioned of course is that some of those additional systems allow the software to be accessible to a greater number and diversity of users. That of course means more people are able to access the benefits of a computer and in a colder sense, you have more consumers for your product as a software developer.

Consider a basic computing task: word processing. The very first very of Microsoft Word came on a 3.5″ or 5.25″ diskette. Microsoft Word 6.0 came on seven diskettes, Word 95, 97 and 2000 on a CD. A modern Microsoft Office 365 install (admittedly containing Word, Excel and PowerPoint) is 4GB. That is a significant evolution of space required for an application to type words onto a computer. Now of course it isn’t quite that simple since the modern word processor has to do a few more things and has more features, but it is hard to imagine that the application truly utilizes all of the space it requires to its fullest potential. As an aside, OpenOffice is a  143.3MB install and LibreOffice that carries its torch is 332MB in size which really makes you wonder what is going on under the hood of both products that these differences are so vast. I doubt SmartArt support makes up the difference. A part of that is likely going towards Microsoft’s efforts to make its software as easy to use for as many different people as possible; that functionality has to come at a cost of resources.

Let’s examine another oddity, the modern web browser. Tom’s Guide did a great little comparison back in 2021 with the following results:

  Google Chrome Microsoft Edge Mozilla Firefox
10 tabs 952 MB 873 MB 995 MB
20 tabs 1.8 GB 1.4 GB 1.6 GB
60 tabs 3.7 GB 2.9 GB 3.9 GB
2 instances / 20 tabs apiece 2.8 GB 2.5 GB 3.0 GB

If we compare that to Netscape Navigator 1.0 in 1994, it required 4MB of RAM. Jumping ahead to 2000, Netscape 6.0 required 64MB of RAM. Internet Explorer 1 required 8MB of RAM in 1995. Internet Explorer 6 in 2001 required 16MB of RAM. This jumped significantly in 2006 when Internet Explorer 7 required 64MB. We would see another significant jump with Internet Explorer 8 with 512MB on Vista and again with Internet Explorer 10 demanding 2GB.

Why is this? The short, oversimplified answer is the internet and the code that runs it is more complicated. In 1997 HTML 4 was brought in with CSS sheets and the rest was downhill with modern web browsers having to support streaming video, WebGL, XML documents and several other standards. In other words, we made the internet do more, so it needs more resources to run. Building all of this functionality in meant it was generally easier to use and provided more functionality but that will of course come at again at the cost of resources.

So how does this all stack up historically? Are we really using that much more resources? Well, the answer wasn’t as clear as I originally thought.

To examine this I picked a laptop from the time period and calculated rough percentages for the software and the demands it placed on the system.

Wikström, Johan, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

IBM ThinkPad 360:
Released in 1994.
Max RAM: 20MB
Max HDD: 540MB

Resources used by Word 6.0: 4MB RAM, 25MB Disk Space or 20% of the RAM capacity and 4% of the HDD
Resources used by Netscape Navigator 1.0: 4MB RAM, 5MB Disk Space or 20% of the RAM capacity and 1% of the HDD

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano:
Released 2021.
Max RAM: 16GB
Max SSD: 1TB

Resources used by Office 365: 4GB RAM, 4GB Disk Space or 20% of the RAM capacity and 0.39% of the SSD
Resources used by Google Chrome: 128MB RAM (~per tab averaged), 100MB Disk Space or 0.78% of the RAM capacity per tab* and 0.010% of the SSD
*It is not common for a user however to just have a single tab open in a modern web browser so this percentage is often considerably higher. However, using the worst-case scenario from the chart above, it still doesn’t break the 20% mark on a higher-end system. It would be more significant on a mid-to-low-end system.

What conclusions can we draw from this easily? Not many as there are many factors that these statistics simplify. It would appear however we have programs that respect our advancement in storage media more than our RAM. Or our advancements in storage technology have outpaced our advancements in RAM. Perhaps an argument could be made the computer will show its age the fastest is the one with the least amount of RAM as there are limits on how much can be paired with each chipset. Another point to consider is how much software does the typical user actually actively use at any given time? Granted there are those of us with 40+ tabs, virtual machines, and various document and project editors open but we are not the majority.

Wirth’s Law might not always be true, but there is some merit to the underlying reasons that it was proposed in the first place. We are asking our software to do more than it has ever done before and computing tasks are growing more complex as the end-user demands more complexity in what is possible while at the same time lowering the bar of entry in terms of the knowledge required to do those tasks. The big question of course is, will it be worth it? Are the tradeoffs worth the cost in performance? With the possibility of our CPUs not getting much more complex according to Moore’s Law beyond the year 2025, is there going to be a renewed need for software optimization?  Feel free to reach on to me on Twitter, I’d love you hear what you think.

This post is a short accompanying piece to the recent video I released on the channel

In that video, David Hill shared with me the design concept that Richard Sapper put together to create a rugged or hardened ThinkPad. ThinkPads were already known for being more durable than the competition, but what if that was taken to the next level. Originally, when we were working on the video, there was only one photograph known to exist of the model that Sapper built that David posted on his Instagram years ago. No other images existed.

An AI upscaled version of the photo originally posted by David Hill.

Until now.

Thanks to David, we now have several images of the concept that Sapper built. Brian Leonard, the current VP of Design at Lenovo was kind enough to go into the archives and take some photographs of the model to help tell the story. They appeared in the video, but I have put them below for archival purposes.

The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, closed.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, left side.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, left side with port door open.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, right side with port door open.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, right side with port door open.