Do concept PCs such as Lenovo's Pocket Yoga help or hurt?

One expert says companies ultimately have to deliver on their promise to retain credibility

When Lenovo Group Ltd. showed off its concept mini-netbook PC, dubbed "Pocket Yoga," earlier this week, it drew excitement from viewers for its elegant, leather-bound design -- and disappointment when Lenovo said it had no plans to build the two-year-old design.

Many still lauded Lenovo for giving them a rare glimpse into its design process, one that Apple Inc. never deigns to do.

Some experts, however, were more circumspect. Ian Lao, an analyst at In-Stat, said he believed the Pocket Yoga was a failed attempt to push the limits of portability while maintaining the PC's productivity.

"Unless you're a kid with small hands, nobody is going to be typing on that thing," Lao said. The Yoga's wide but shallow screen would make it good for reading e-mails, but it would be a pain to type long e-mails or documents, he said. "It's got crippled content creation capabilities. I think it would've been better to step up to a netbook size."

Widely known for its conservative ThinkPad line of business laptops, Lenovo belatedly made its global foray into the consumer side last year with its IdeaPad notebooks and netbook PCs.

Lenovo may have hoped that showing off the Pocket Yoga design could help its more plain-Jane models bask in the reflected glory. It's a tactic used by car makers such as General Motors, which for years released concept cars that it never built, or fashion designers who dress models in unwearable haute couture for the runway that they later water down for retail stores.

The message has left the building

"What you're trying to demonstrate is that the company can think outside of the box," said Philipp Steiner, a design manager at Teague, a Seattle industrial design firm whose portfolio includes Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s TouchSmart all-in-one PC. "But quite frankly, unless you periodically deliver on that promise, you lose credibility over time," Steiner said.

That point is expressed more forcefully in a blog by a New York-based "design surgeon" known only as "Kontra."

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Lenovo's Pocket Yoga ... can't touch this.

Two high-tech firms that have released some of the most interesting concept designs to the public over the years are Nokia Corp., with its half-moon-shaped cell phone prototype Morph, or Microsoft with its Surface tabletop computer.

Yet, neither is regarded as a design leader, writes Kontra. Meanwhile, Kontra speculates that Apple "likely generates more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use," yet never releases a single concept product, instead choosing to bet "its own billions on a shipping product."

Why? "Because," writes Kontra, "to paraphrase [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs, 'real artists ship.'"

Leaks happen

Lenovo said it decided to show off the Pocket Yoga after a grainy photo of the device was allegedly smuggled out of its Beijing offices to the popular personal tech site Engadget.

Some, including Steiner, find the timing -- a day before rival Dell Inc. launches the Adamo, a thin-and-light luxury notebook -- more than a little suspicious.

"I've worked with a lot of in-house design studios. People lose their jobs if leaks happen," Steiner said. "The leaks that are really unplanned are truly rare."

What if the leak was an attempt by a certain faction inside Lenovo to get the green light to build the Pocket Yoga?

Steiner thinks that is possible. He believes that the Pocket Yoga could succeed as a pricey device aimed at so-called metrosexual CEO types. "Executives are more about the phone and directing people; they don't spend a lot of time writing their own e-mails and memos," he said. "You can charge a substantial premium for something that is not all that expensive to make; if the finish is like a Coach purse or some other high-quality leather piece."

Lao disagreed. He said the Pocket Yoga is unbuildable, its usefulness is too limited because of its size and its likely price is too high for these recessionary times.

That doesn't mean some of its features -- the 360-degree locking hinge that enables both keyboard and tablet input -- won't make it to market in other Lenovo products, though.

"You may never buy a race car, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't mind having a particular shock absorber or tire from it," Lao said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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