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September 20, 2005 4:29 pm

Black day for IBM traditionalists

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For more than a decade, US computer company IBM echoed Henry Ford in its design approach toward its iconic Thinkpad laptop computers: customers could have any colour they wanted – as long as it was black.

But IBM’s PC business is now owned by Lenovo, the Chinese PC producer, which has now introduced a new shade to the Thinkpad range with the launch of a Z-Series laptop that comes both in a “classic black” case and with a “special-edition” brushed titanium cover.

The move away from the signature colour scheme, which is understood to have dismayed some IBM traditionalists, underlines Lenovo’s determination to widen the market for the Thinkpad range following its US$1.75bn acquisition of the IBM unit in May and its efforts to break away from the IBM image.

Under IBM, the unit had long relied largely on sales of Thinkpad laptops and Thinkcentre desktop PCs to big corporate and institutional clients, including the computer services group itself and the US government.

However, the new Z-Series laptop is aimed at US “mobile and small business users who rely on one notebook computer for both work and life demands”, Lenovo said in a statement.

“Titanium offers a sleek new look, durability, and scratch resistance for one of the world's most well-known notebook brands,” the company said.

Lenovo sees expanding sales to small and medium-sized businesses, long neglected by “Big Blue”, as a way to meet its target of growing twice as fast as the overall PC industry.

The Z-series is intended to win such customers with features such as a specially wide screen suited both to making data presentations and watching DVDs, as well as built-in wireless data access in the US.

Yang Yuanqing, Lenovo chairman, told the FT last month that the world’s third-largest computer maker was drawing up a global brand strategy that would use the Think trademark for high-end products.

However, tinkering with the Thinkpad’s design could prove risky. A black Thinkpad has been displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and IBM executives have in the past praised the colour for its “purposeful connotations” and resistance to the vagaries of fashion.

Lenovo has already moved faster than expected to minimise its dependence on the IBM name, which it has the right to use on Thinkpad products for five years. Changing the “ubiquitous black box” could further loosen the loyalties of longtime users.

IBM in 1999 offered individual buyers “optional coloured covers” for laptops in Mars Red Metallic, Andromeda Green or Polaris Blue for an extra US$30.

The idea did not take off.

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