When IBM sold their PC division to Lenovo, not all was well with the iconic ThinkPad brand. IBM was losing money and wanted to get rid of the PC arm of the business for several years. ThinkPad was one of the many components that made the purchase of IBM’s PC Division desirable. Towards the end of IBM’s ownership, corners and costs were being cut to try and save money where they could and that was starting to hurt what they could do with the newer generations of ThinkPad. It would seem if IBM kept ThinkPad, things were going to get worse, not better.
To learn more about this part of the history of these two companies and a great deal about the topic of this article, the ThinkPad X300, you need to learn more about Steve Hamm’s book, “The Race for Perfect.”
David Churbuk (VP of Global Digital Marketing at Lenovo from 2005 through 2010) recalls the atmosphere in a blog post he wrote for the 25th anniversary of ThinkPad. We are fortunate that David Churbuk wrote about these experiences so we can look back at them as part of a historical record:
Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005. Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.
The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David [Hill]’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.
In terms of timelines and based on the reading, research and interviews I’ve done over the years, the cost-cutting and outsourcing of manufacturing were happening often during the last of the IBM years. Examples of this can be seen through the changes in materials, designs and even the cost-saving decision for the ThinkLight to be amber since those LEDs were cheaper. Several models were being produced by Acer, LG and Lenovo rather than in-house by IBM. When the transition occurred, Lenovo understandably had a lot to learn about being a large designer and manufacturer of PCs in a global market. That is a significant jump for a company to make. It wasn’t perfect and neither was what they were handed.
So when it came time for Lenovo to build their own ThinkPad from the ground up without IBM, they needed to get it right. They had to prove to the world that they knew what they were doing and could do just as good or better than IBM. For this next part of the story, I recommend if you haven’t already viewed the Project Kodachi video series on my YouTube channel to get a better understanding of the context that brought about the ThinkPad X300.
Laptop Mag in 2008 named David Hill, the chief designer of the ThinkPad X300, #19 on their 25 Most Influential People in Mobile Technology for his work on the ThinkPad X300 and compared it favourably against the rival of the time, the MacBook Air. Contrary to popular belief, the X300 was well into development by the time the Air was announced and was not created in response to the efforts of Apple. That myth came about as a result of the direct comparisons drawn at the time.
This comparison and rivalry would extend to the ThinkPad X301 and the sleek black box did well when compared to other machines of the day:
Apple came out with the MacBook Air — an incredibly thin, sexy and largely impractical notebook, while Lenovo brought out the ThinkPad X300, which shared the Air’s size but otherwise was almost the polar opposite. The X300 wasn’t anywhere near as attractive but was a product you could truly live on, being vastly more practical. The X301 improves on the X300, having more performance and the option of an amazingly fast 128-GB hard drive. I’m a huge fan of these solid state drives; they are dead quiet, use little power and have blindingly fast read rates. Unfortunately, they are also very expensive, but darned if they aren’t worth it.
The MacBook Air is arguably the most attractive notebook in the market, while the X301 is the closest to overall perfection. The market tends to favor appearance over practicality at the moment, but the true perfect laptop would be one that was as good looking as the Air and as practical as the X301. We’ll see if Apple or Lenovo gets there first.
Lenovo’s X301 is arguably the closest thing to notebook perfection, but if sales volumes are to reflect this, it will need to improve its appearance and find an economically more attractive entry price. In the end, however, this is all about choice — and Apple, Dell and Lenovo are providing ever-more-interesting ones. Being a fan of choice, that has to be a good thing.
Apple vs. Dell vs. Lenovo: Got to Love Choices by Rob Enderle December 8, 2008
The ThinkPad X300 launched a new era of ThinkPads. It would lead to the creation of the ThinkPad X1 and the first ThinkPad X1 Carbon which is the industry standard for a business laptop. The DNA and design of the ThinkPad X300 would be transformed in the X1 series but would continue with a few changes in the emergence of the ThinkPad T400s and subsequent T410s, T420s and T430s models. The location of the ports and features of the device would harken back to the layout first configured on the ThinkPad X300. David Churbuk seems to agree:
Ah ….. This thing took all the glory of our X300 — the notebook Businessweek called the Perfect PC — and puts it into a serious heatseeker of a laptop. You can, if you are inclined to spend the big dollars, make this thing behave like a serious workstation. Configure it with a big SSD drive, max the RAM and you’re talking one of the most powerful laptops ever conceived. Super thin, and loaded. I could see toting this around for the next two years with never a regret.
Without the creation of the ThinkPad X300, it is uncertain if Lenovo would have the success it has enjoyed with the ThinkPad brand. While the X1 Carbon and T series often steal the show in terms of most popular choices for a quality business laptop, neither would be where they are today without the ThinkPad X300.