The Butterfly: From A Little Girl's Building Blocks

In the old days, the Butterfly might never have flown. But the ThinkPad 701C laptop PC, code-named Butterfly, became the first on-time product from the IBM PC Co. in years--and a badly needed smash hit. The breakthrough that inspired its name: a full-size keyboard that neatly tucks inside the compact, 41/2-pound unit. Says Edward R. Anderson, chief executive officer of CompuCom Systems Inc., which runs a chain of PC stores: "It's the most exciting thing I've seen since the Mac." And the fact that it metamorphosed so smoothly from engineering sketch to finished product is the surest sign yet that IBM can indeed fix its personal-computer problems.

Two winters ago, IBM's PC development chief, Bruce L. Claflin, came across the unique keyboard design during a "show-and-tell" session with researchers at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. One researcher, John P. Karides, had been intrigued by the challenge of shrinking a portable computer--while keeping a full-size keyboard and screen. After deciding the screen couldn't be smaller, the 36-year-old mechanical engineer focused instead on the keyboard. He fiddled with some origami designs, but they just made the machine thicker. "I realized the problem was one of shape, not size," he says. Karides then envisioned two triangles that make up a rectangle, and when he saw his 4-year-old daughter playing with a set of blocks, it all clicked.

Back at work, he grabbed a ThinkPad, ran to a copier, and flipped it over. Soon, he had cut the keyboard image in a way that became the Butterfly. Then he built a prototype--basically, a rectangular plate with two keyboard halves in it. Slide a lever, and two overlapping pieces come together on a single plane. When Claflin saw it, he was floored. Often, he says, the lab folks show off-the-wall technology. "We saw this one, and it was electric," he recalls. "You just knew."

This is where the project might have foundered in the old system. Karides would have handed it off to product developers--miles away--who might take years just to build a prototype. That's why it took six years for an earlier IBM innovation--an eraser-like pointing device for portables--to hit the market.

Not this time. Karides and two colleagues joined a product-design team and spent the next year commuting to Raleigh, N.C. "It doesn't matter all that much if you have some great idea and it just sits on the shelf," says Karides. "The best thing you can do for the company is go help it become a product."

TYING TOSHIBA. Butterfly isn't just a product--it's a hit. Computer Intelligence InfoCorp figures that the Butterfly, which debuted on Mar. 7, already accounts for 8% of IBM notebook PC sales. And Audits & Surveys Worldwide Inc. says that in May, the new model helped IBM for the first time tie Toshiba Corp. as the top seller of portables through PC dealers. IBM recently cut the price of the entry-level model 17%, to $2,900, and has geared up a plant in Mexico to meet demand.

What's Karides' next project? He's not saying. But Karides does say that his personal goal is to fit a 10-inch display into a handheld computer. That, he admits, is going to take a while. In the meantime, he's playing with origami again.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.