Flashback: What killed IBM's Bufferfly

As I was researching this week's story on how virtual, touch-screen keyboards may improve to the point where they challenge the dominance of physical keyboards, I got into an interesting side discussion: The inside story about IBM's famous "butterfly" keyboard, one of the most innovative mechanical keyboards of all time.

When IBM released its famous ThinkPad 701c in 1995, the notebook computer created quite a stir. The innovative "ultra portable" design, created in IBM's labs by mechanical engineer Dr. John Karidis, included a full-size, two-piece keyboard that rose upward when you opened the case and lifted the display, and then extended outward, like two butterfly wings, into a full-sized keyboard that stretched beyond the sides of the case.

ThinkPad 701C

But by the time the next generation of laptops came out, the season of the butterfly effect had run its course. "The butterfly had a brief window when it aligned with peoples' desires," says David Hill, a former IBM employee who was around for the 701c's introduction and is now vice president of design at Lenovo.

Here's what happened.

In the mid-'90s, the focus was on ultraportable designs with small footprints. When the 701c came out, IBM was using the biggest display glass it could build (10.4 in. diagonally), but the aspect ratio (4:3) wasn't a good match for the aspect ratio of a full-sized keyboard, especially in that small-footprint form factor. "You had to have a very large border around the display to accommodate a large keyboard," Hill says.

To avoid that, IBM developed the butterfly design, creating what was literally an out-of-the-box keyboard experience.

Then displays changed. "We cracked the code on making a larger piece of glass, so the need for having this expanding keyboard became much less," Hill says.

Since then other developments have made for a more harmonious matching of keyboard and screen designs in laptops. Screen aspect ratios have followed the television, moving from 4:3 to the wider 16:9, a better fit with the aspect ratio of the standard full-sized keyboard. And consumer interest has shifted from small form factor to slimness. "People are more accepting of the footprint it if is very thin," Hill says.

In the end, IBM's butterfly keyboard faded away and IBM eventually sold its PC business to Lenovo. Karidis, today a distinguished engineer at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, went on to work on other innovations for the ThinkPad and other IBM products.

Note: I enjoy engaging in conversations with blog readers but it's difficult to keep track of ongoing threads from regular readers if everyone posts as "anonymous." To keep the dialog going please consider taking a moment to enter a regular identity "handle" with your posts. Keep the comments coming! --RLM

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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