Kevin Beck: Keyboards and screens are not going anywhere
Kevin Beck often tells people he has two jobs. One is what’s printed on his business card: senior competitive analyst. In this capacity, he looks at all the latest technology in the market, comparing it with Lenovo’s products.
The other part of his job involves spending time at ThinkPad’s development lab in Japan, which he visits twice or thrice a year. Along with ThinkPad’s core engineering team, Beck zeroes in on the minute details of what has been changed, fixed and improved in ThinkPad products. He then breaks it down for potential consumers. He describes this role as the “explainer of things”.
Beck was in New Delhi recently to mark 25 years of Lenovo’s ThinkPad brand. In an interview with Lounge, he explains how physical keyboards and traditional laptops will never lose their relevance, and why the next wave of innovation in laptops will depend on how we adapt to the way modern workplaces change. Edited excerpts:
How has ThinkPad evolved over the years?
People often ask us, “why hasn’t it changed over the last 25 years?” And obviously, it has. We have had a very consistent, industrial-design philosophy which I think has given us some strengths…. I just think back to the ThinkPad models I used in the early days, like the 755 CD. I am pretty sure it was close to 45-50mm thick and probably close to 2.5-3kg. That was considered portable at the time. Then there was a system which was only ever sold in Japan, the ThinkPad 235. It was an ultra miniature 10-inch screen laptop with a tiny keyboard and had a Pentium 266 in it.
They have obviously gotten thinner and lighter but usability has increased. At the top end of our product line right now is a 16mm, 1.1kg ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and it passes all the same durability, reliability, mil-spec (military-specification) tests as our 17-inch, three-and-a-half kilogram mobile workstation.
If you were to compare the two (the first ThinkPad, which was inspired by a bento box, and the latest models), they are physically identifiable as a ThinkPad—black, with a red dot in the middle, which is the TrackPoint. But to go from 56mm and 3.4kg for the first one down to 16mm and 1.1kg now over the course of 25 years and still have that recognized…so they have changed in a lot of ways.
There are a lot more form factors now. If you look back at the first 12 years, the IBM era of ThinkPad, we had the 360, the TransNote, which opened up with a built-in paper notebook. We did have a great bit of success with the original, convertible tablet where the screen would spin 180 degrees and then fold back down. But that was about it. That was still the era of dominance of clam-shell laptops. In these first 13 years, from 1992-2005, we sold 25 million ThinkPads in total. Since then, from 2005-17, we have sold an additional 105 million in total. For us, there is no one-size-fits-all kind of an approach…even now we have got detachables, convertibles like the Yoga (tab), traditional clam- shells, ultra thin and light, up to massive 17-inch mobile workstations.
You mentioned that laptops are becoming thinner. Does this change in design and form factor affect performance?
There is much less space and there are also heat issues. We have a huge team of engineers in Japan who concentrate every day on building fans, heat sinks and cooling devices for the exact same reason. If laptops were still big, thick and heavy, it would be much easier to cool them. I would answer this by polarizing it to a potential endgame. Our father of the ThinkPad, (Arimasa) Naitoh-san (the first ThinkPads were designed and created under his leadership), is fond of saying: “No laptop will ever be 0mm thick.”
So, there comes a point when you do have to stop. We don’t know yet what that point is because it does start to affect usability. We have proven that we can go down to 16mm without affecting durability. But that involves a pretty copious use of exotic materials like carbon fibre.
Just like with phones, there is an aesthetic desire to have them (bezels) be thinner (in laptops). But I don’t think anyone has found a way to quantify the thinness of the bezel in terms of productivity.... It is in the mind perhaps of consumers that it’s simple to redesign and make bezels thinner. That space is used: There are cables, wires that go up there to make the cameras, microphones and antennas work.
I won’t say what the ThinkPad will look like on its 50th anniversary, but in my opinion, for the foreseeable future, screens and keyboards are not going anywhere. Detachables may become more popular in the market, but I don’t see smartphones replacing laptops anytime soon.
Some of the latest smartphones can do pretty much everything: entertainment, productivity and communication. What do you think is the laptop’s place in the market?
I have seen a lot of adoption curves from our research folks. It’s true that at least over the last five years, a significant number of people around the world who would only have been able to use a laptop for content consumption, have figured out that tablets and phones fulfil their content consumption needs. So, yes, there was a part of that market where people were only using laptops to consume media or surf the internet. That has been replaced by phones and tablets.
But if you look at recent market trends, laptops are still overwhelmingly favourites at corporations and small businesses around the world because of the screen size, information density and the keyboard, the ability to type. Anybody from (the age of) 20-60, let’s call that three generations of workers, is still used to turning thoughts into symbols and letters on a screen. That’s how we convey information and that’s still pretty much a keyboard-based operation.... Typing is still typing. For that reason, we think the laptop is still extremely relevant in one of its current forms, probably all three: detachable, clam-shell and convertible.
What do you think will be the next step of innovation in laptops?
I think part of it is adapting to the way workplaces change…. Nowadays, everything is much more collaborative and open. You have CEOs sitting at an open desk because they realize that having brains walled off behind a closed door is not the way forward. To me, that’s part of the adaptation. So we’ve got to look, as we are, into what’s the proper future of audio-video output, speakers; things like Artificial Intelligence (AI) as DPAs, or digital personal assistants, become more prevalent; microphones, cameras, facial recognition.
Some of the ways in which people do things like authenticate; the expectation, as it is with phones, is that everything will be biometric—fingerprints, facial recognition, voice printing, better microphones and so on.
That’s part of the reason we see great potential for the convertible space: both 2-in-1s and detachables. The clam-shell will still be there in the typing mode, but with a convertible you get the best of both worlds as opposed to a pure tablet.
Which technology trends are you most excited about in 2018?
For me, it’s the automation possibilities of AI. Like, say, at home, with voice control, integrated sensors, alarms and so on; basically, the promise and also the potential risks of “AI-ification” of the Internet of Things and personal automation. Another thing, although I am personally not into it, is 3D printing. I can’t remember the term for it but when a 3D printer is able to print a 3D printer, that’s when the world becomes interesting. Apart from electric and self-driving cars, private space flight is also fascinating.