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How a toy inspired the ‘butterfly’ keyboard design of the iconic IBM ThinkPad 701C

In an exclusive interview with Indianexpress.com, Dilip Bhatia, VP of User and Customer Experience at Lenovo, takes us back to the history of the iconic IBM ThinkPad 701C and the crazy "butterfly" keyboard design.

Written by Anuj Bhatia | New Delhi |
Updated: June 14, 2021 8:24:24 am
IBM first introduced the "butterfly" keyboard in 1995 with the ThinkPad 701C. (Image credit: Lenovo)

Every laptop is not the same and every laptop is not the IBM ThinkPad 701C. Arguably the most fascinating ultraportable computer ever made, the IBM ThinkPad 701C’s unique full-size butterfly keyboard — designed by John Karidis and inspired by his daughter’s toy — in the compact laptop was something unheard of at the time.

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“The biggest reason the butterfly keyboard came out was [these] business laptops were obviously very popular with business folks and the biggest complaint that we got from customers was the competing laptops were too small,” Dilip Bhatia, Chief Customer Experience Officer and Vice-President of User & Customer Experience at Lenovo, remembers the IBM ThinkPad 701C and how it changed the market for ultraportable business laptops.

The ThinkPad 700 series concept was introduced by International Business Machines Corporation (Lenovo acquired IBM’s PC business and the iconic ThinkPad brand in 2005) to create a new category of business laptops that’s easier to carry and use. The challenge for the team was to fit a full-sized keyboard alongside a 10.4-inch LCD colour display into the next ThinkPad 701C portable laptop.

To solve the unique design problem, Dr. John Karidis, an IBM distinguished engineer, took on the challenge to develop the “Butterfly” keyboard. Bhatia explains that Karidis, a mechanical engineer with IBM’s Personal Computing Division at that time, got the idea of a foldout butterfly keyboard by observing his three-year-old daughter who was building shapes out of her toy blocks. Observing his daughter play with wooden blocks, Karidis thought of cutting the board across the number 4, T, H and M keys. That way the board was broken into two distinctive movable parts. That was how the “Butterfly” keyboard came about.

“At that time, the only screen available was a 10.4-inch screen. The problem statement was how do we integrate a full-size keyboard in a sub-notebook form factor, which was the 700 series at that time. So the design started in 1993 and the product came out in early 1995, “ Bhatia sheds light on the development of the ThinkPad 701C.

IBM ThinkPad 701C, IBM ThinkPad 701C butterfly keyboard, IBM ThinkPad 701C history, John Karidis IBM, Lenovo, Lenovo ThinkPad, Dilip Bhatia Lenovo Perhaps the most distinctive thing that made the ThinkPad 701C so different from other notebooks was its fold-out keyboard. (Image credit: Lenovo)

From the outside, the ThinkPad 701C was an ordinary-looking IBM laptop, all back and solid and a boxy, right-angled external case design. But when you open the lid, the real magic happens. Karidis had figured out a way to fit a full-sized keyboard into a 9.7-inch laptop chassis by dividing the keyboard into two interlocking pieces that folded in and out as you opened and closed the laptop’s lid. So the lid is closed, both pieces lie flat in the case. As and when the laptop lid is opened, it lifts the two pieces and stretches the keyboard beyond the case, just like when a Butterfly opens its wings.

“There were other debates within IBM at that point. Should we call this the IBM ThinkPad butterfly? There was a lot of back and forth. Eventually, we decided not to come out with a new brand name,” says Bhatia who joined IBM in 1999 and had the opportunity to work with Richard Sapper, the industrial designer behind the original ThinkPad, introduced in 1992.

“The marketing team did a fantastic job around 1995 when they would place these little ads in newspapers, and with just a picture of a butterfly. There was a lot of buzz and excitement around the ThinkPad 701C, something the industry had not seen in 1995,” he added.

IBM ThinkPad 701C, IBM ThinkPad 701C butterfly keyboard, IBM ThinkPad 701C history, John Karidis IBM, Lenovo, Lenovo ThinkPad, Dilip Bhatia Lenovo The ‘butterfly’ keyboard essentially expands when the laptop lid is opened. (Image credit: Lenovo)

Bhatia remembers John Karidis and his fellow team members including Sam Lucente, Richard Sapper and Robert P. Tennant started working on the ThinkPad 701C in 1993. “This project was codenamed Butterfly, when John Karidis and the team designed what they almost thought of as wings of an airplane, like the Top Gun movie,” he said.“We had Yamato Lab, we had our designers at Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, North Carolina and Richard Sapper himself, a German-based in Milan,” says Bhatia. “So it truly was a global product development, even back in the day.”

The impressive foldout butterfly keyboard had a promising and game-changing concept to tackle the real-life problem of stuffing a full-sized keyboard into a portable laptop, though the launch of notebooks with larger displays soon made the need for such a keyboard redundant. “When the butterfly keyboard was created, it was there to solve a problem,” Bhatia says. “The number one complaint from our customers back then was the cramped keyboard and what the 701C did was really solve that customer problem.”

IBM ThinkPad 701C, IBM ThinkPad 701C butterfly keyboard, IBM ThinkPad 701C history, John Karidis IBM, Lenovo, Lenovo ThinkPad, Dilip Bhatia Lenovo Thanks to the butterfly keyboard design, the ThinkPad 701C featured a full-sized keyboard. (Image credit: Lenovo YouTube video screengrab)

When IBM released the ThinkPad 701C in 1995, it was an instant hit among business travellers and made the company cool again. As a matter of fact, this laptop holds a spot in MoMA’s permanent collection in New York City. The ThinkPad 701C also made countless appearances in Hollywood’s biggest movies released at the time including GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s debut film as James Bond and Mission Impossible, starring Tom Cruise.

While many don’t remember the ThinkPad 701C after 26 years of its release, Bhatia says the laptop is still in hot demand among the collector community. In fact, he says a lot of Lenovo’s industrial designers have the ThinkPad 701C. “When we talk about the top 10 ThinkPads, this definitely shows up as the number one or probably the top two or three as one of the most popular products ever.”

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