In 1992, all-star industrial designer Richard Sapper created what would become the most time-honored design of his career: The IBM Thinkpad laptop. Starkly modeled after a cigar box, it opened to reveal a “surprise“–a whole computer hiding inside. And it directly inspired the ThinkPad model 700C, which became IBM’s icon, with one bright red button known as a “TrackPoint” nub. The TrackPoint sat inside the keyboard to aim the mouse, while a right and left mouse button lived below the spacebar. The design and engineering was ingenious, allowing you to mouse around without removing your hands from the keyboard, squeezing a lot of control into a small form factor at a time when the very idea of what a “laptop” was had barely been defined.
Lenovo purchased the ThinkPad brand from IBM in 2005, and to this day it has a loyal following that will wax poetic about its durability and timeless design. That following may be too loyal. Because decades of hardware innovations have come and gone, opening up all sorts of new ways to build and control a laptop.
The ThinkPad of today accommodates all of the old school TrackPoint users by keeping that red nub in the keyboard, and it also has a trackpad beneath because trackpads are what 99% of laptop users would prefer to use. Yes, that means there are two complete mouse setups on the ThinkPads of today.
It’s ludicrous, but there’s a reason Lenovo has done this. When the company toyed with this design in 2014–not even daring to eliminate TrackPoint, but to consolidate its left and right mouse buttons into one long bar–the company was accused of sodomy, became the subject of messageboard rants, and was disgraced on YouTube. Lenovo catered to user demands and changed things back this year.
Sapper’s design was unparalleled in 1992, but times have changed. We have touchpads and touch screens that can distinguish how many fingers you’re clicking with. We have IR cameras that can see your gestures in air. We have many more options than we used to. And as comfortable as rubbing that old red nub might be, it’s time for ThinkPad users to think bigger, to push Lenovo to make a true, spiritual successor that’s worthy of the name 25 years later. (Though, okay, okay, the ThinkPad Sapper designed in 2012 was a real looker. But silly ThinkPad fans just complained about that, too!)
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