PC Magazine called it “the most compelling gaming system” in the past three years. Wired pronounced it “a force of nature.” The influential AnandTech put it on “the cutting edge of design and technology.” While the newly released Blackbird 002 has left the uber-geeks swooning, what’s really remarkable is that it comes from Hewlett-Packard, a company that’s not exactly known for producing exotic, extreme-performance computers. HP might at times act like a lumbering giant, but in creating the Blackbird, it was as agile as the machine’s namesake—the SR-71 Blackbird surveillance aircraft. Here’s a quick story on how the Blackbird 002 came to be.
It started last year, on a flight from Palo Alto to San Diego. Phil McKinney, who’s VP and CTO of HP’s Personal Systems Group, and Todd Bradley, who’s the division’s EVP, were on their way to evaluate a company with some “interesting technology,” when McKinney struck up a conversation with one of the HP engineers who were accompanying them. The technologist proceeded to describe how he’d developed, working off hours, a motherboard that delivered twice the performance of anything that was on the market at the time. McKinney quickly realized that the motherboard could take HP into the gaming market, which the tech giant had never cracked. Before the 75-minute flight was over, Bradley approved a $1 million budget and a start-up team of 10 engineers to develop a souped-up computer for the gaming space.
McKinney heads up HP’s Innovation Program Office, an internal VC group that gives employees the opportunity to build companies inside HP—and gives HP the opportunity to launch new growth engines. The IPO’s current goal is to each year churn out two worldwide launches that demonstrate the potential to grow into $600 million to $800 million businesses within three to four years. That means McKinney and his team must vet between 200 and 300 “good” business plans annually—about one per workday. It’s a ruthless process. “The problem with most innovation processes is that they don’t kill good-but-not-great ideas, they simply wound them and let them linger,” says McKinney. “HP is known for being nice, but our goal is to kill often and kill fast.”
Blackbird’s chances for surviving the IPO gamut improved markedly when HP acquired Voodoo PC, the boutique maker of Ferrari-quality gaming systems—Blackbird is the first product to be co-designed by HP and Voodoo. McKinney worked closely with the engineering team, whose leaders sat within a “two cube radius” of his cubicle. The design initiative for the Blackbird had none of the normal constraints that are applied to HP’s core product line. The goal was to create an elegantly simple, iconic design—which meant that the handcuffs were off, and the engineers and designers were free to unleash all the passion and creativity that they could muster. Basically, they changed the look of a power PC.
“A lot of gaming PCs have a kind of ‘power plastic’ look, but the Blackbird is all metal—there’s no plastic in the thing,” says McKinney. “We mounted it on a raised stand, which cools the machine from every side—an industry first. We don’t get hot spots, which lets it run cooler and quieter, and therefore deliver a much more robust performance. And we made the entire machine tool-less, so it’s very simple to do upgrades.”
While Blackbird is decidedly a high-end PC, it’s also a test-bed for technology and design innovations—and a seed-bank for the future. “Some of what you see now in this product,” says McKinney, “will eventually turn up in our mainstream products.”