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Lenovo’s laptop guru explains why the ThinkPad keyboard is here to stay

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Kevin Beck
Kevin Beck, Lenovo’s senior competitive worldwide analyst, explains the design concept of ThinkPad laptops to the media. -- LENOVO

KEVIN BECK, Lenovo’s senior worldwide competitive analyst for PCs, can talk all day about innovations in computing, particularly in laptops, which he has collected since he worked at IBM some 20 years ago.

But because of limited time, he said he could only talk about one of his passions: the development of ThinkPad laptops. In an interview with journalists from Asia, Mr. Beck explains why the ThinkPad look remained the same for 25 years and why he thinks, despite technological breakthroughs like voice recognition, the tactile keyboard will not be phased out anytime soon. Excerpts:

CAN YOU WALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF UPDATING LENOVO OR THINKPAD PRODUCT LINES?
It’s the intersection of many different things. You got larger technology cycles. Every year, chipsets, processors change. There’s new functionality. There’s always new technology trends in the market. So it is the intersection of specific changes in technology and larger technology trends to make sure [Lenovo is] well positioned for the future. Because people use [laptops] for three-, four-, and five years so we need as much as possible to make sure they’re going to be future-proof. It’s not always completely possible but it’s one of the goals that we have.

We also look deeply at a number of different areas of input. We have customer advisory councils, where we talk deeply, sometimes years ahead, to representatives from large and small customers about what they think about [Lenovo’s] direction for anything going forward.

We look at direct customer feedback through phone, surveys, and there’s big data, where we’re looking at using some very sophisticated tools to look at aggregated data across tens of thousands of data points from reviews to look at trends.

We have to fit all [these factors] in one package that gets to the market on time, that meets three classic criteria: the design and the usability have to be right, the innovation and the technology have to be right, and durability and the reliability have to be right.

DO YOU THINK PC MAKERS HAVE EXHAUSTED ALL THE POSSIBILITIES OF HOW A LAPTOP CAN BE DESIGNED? FOR INSTANCE, DO YOU THINK THE KEYBOARD IS GOING TO DISAPPEAR ANYTIME SOON?
Have we definitively exhausted that? No. Today, what we are down to is a classic clamshell, like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, which is still probably one of our best sellers, and then the convertibles, like the ThinkPad X1 Yoga. But then you got tablets where you pull the keyboard off. I won’t say the keyboard will never go away but if you look at how people work, the nature of global business productive output is still very keyboard based. People may be spending more time on their phone than they used to. They spend a fair bit of time sitting on a couch with a tablet. But ultimately, nobody’s doing massive corporate spreadsheets on a touchscreen.

WHAT ABOUT VOICE RECOGNITION IN LAPTOPS?
I started at IBM in 1997, and least by 1998 or ’99, I had installed a voice-recognition software on my ThinkPad and played with it. So at least 18 years ago, in general the industry has promised us that full voice control of computers is just around the corner, and you know what, 18 years later, we’re a lot closer than we were then, but it’s still not there.

It’s much more useful than it ever used to be, but it’s still not mainstream for productive work. [Voice] is still an adjunct to the keyboard.

DO YOU SEE THE THINKPAD BRAND CATERING TO A LARGER AUDIENCE, NOT JUST CORPORATE USERS, I.E. CREATIVE PROFESSIONALS?
Absolutely. Our market share in mobile workstation has been increasing. When you look at the way that, in the last 10 years, people view technology, it has gone from a generation of people who didn’t necessarily care about what they use as long as it worked, to people having very clear preferences.

That people now have clear preferences I think, is the best thing in the world for ThinkPad as a brand. Because we had this particular point of view for 25 years about the intersection of usability, technology and durability.

What we bring to it is a particular view of industrial design, as our VP of design David Hill, used to say, “For 25 years, if you say it’s a black rectangle with red dot in the middle, you know you’re talking about the ThinkPad.” And that’s worth something from a brand perspective.

We’re not people who are making the super crazy flash-in-the-pan thing that you see every year at CES that doesn’t even sometimes get to market. We’re making pretty serious tools. And, if one thing is true, people are using more technology in their lives and if you look at the breadth of the ThinkPad portfolio, I think that’s what we’re doing to address that: we have high-, medium-, and low ranges that cover classic, clamshell, convertible and tablet form factor. We have got the range of usage model covered. — MBG