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'Butterfly' exemplifies a new attitude at IBM


SOMERS, N.Y. -- Like any new father, John Karidis beams when people fuss over his new baby, oohing and aahing as they crouch in for a close look.

"It is the same reaction from everyone," he said.

This time, however, it isn't his toddler daughter that everyone is gushing about -- though she does play an important role. It's his Butterfly.

Mr. Karidis is the International Business Machines Corp. inventor who helped create the company's newest Thinkpad portable computer. His contribution, a breakthrough in portable computing, is a full-sized keyboard that tucks itself neatly inside the tiny machine when the top is closed.

Butterfly is the code name for the computer, officially known as the Thinkpad 701C. It is the hottest new product to hit the computer business for years and, possibly, the home run the world's biggest computer company badly needs to help it regain pre-eminence in the PC business. The Butterfly, some say, signals not just a comeback for Big Blue but a refreshing new attitude.

"This is a huge win. It puts [IBM] in a class by themselves," said analyst Tim Bajarin of market research firm Creative Research Strategies.

Mr. Bajarin, who has been using portable computers since 1985, said the keyboard is the best he has seen on a portable product and that its large display is a major bonus. "It's an amazing little product, and it will put tremendous pressure on competitors," he said.

Mr. Karidis, 36, naturally agrees. "This is the new IBM," the 10-year veteran of the Armonk, N.Y., company, said. "In the old days people would have found lots of reasons why we shouldn't do it, or they would have thought about it for a year until someone else did it."

Mr. Karidis' fellow keyboard inventors, Gerry McVicker and Michael Goldowsky, are basking with him in the praise for their first commercial invention. "This is a career highlight," said Mr. McVicker, an Irish-born mechanical engineer who helped develop the mechanism that automatically expands the keyboard when the top is lifted.

The keyboard, developed at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is seen by many as a return to the days when IBM was known for its inventiveness rather than its caution.

The company lost its leadership in PCs to nimbler rivals such as Compaq Computer Corp. Analysts say IBM's Somers, N.Y.-based PC business has been losing money for several years, including an estimated $1 billion last year. The division has been hurt by confusing product lines, problems anticipating demand and manufacturing difficulties.

Big Blue's latest release not only is getting rave reviews but has racked up the highest number of first-day orders for any product in the PC company's history, IBM said, though it declined to give a number. IBM expects demand to continue to outpace supply through the second quarter.

As a boy in Pittsburgh, Mr. Karidis says, he liked to tinker in his father's workshop, "taking things apart -- and occasionally not being able to put them back together."

Mr. Karidis, a mechanical engineer with a doctorate from Pennsylvania State University, has no such problem with his latest invention. It puts itself back together with the flip of a lid, leaving behind none of those pesky extra parts he had to hide from Dad.

In the spring of 1993, Mr. Karidis had just completed a high-speed robotics project for IBM and was given his new assignment for the PC company: to help make devices that allowed for the smallest possible dimensions in a portable computer.

The two limitations to reducing the size of a portable computer are the keyboard and the screen size. The biggest complaints users have about notebooks and the even smaller subnotebooks are crammed-together keyboard keys and minuscule displays.

Mr. Karidis said he saw no easy way to make the screen panel smaller without sacrificing viewing surface, which he didn't want to do. So he set to work on the other side, wondering if he could somehow fit the traditional 11.5-inch keyboard into the much smaller space available in a notebook computer.

Perhaps, he thought, he could fold the keyboard. He tried some origami patterns but they didn't shrink the size of the machine --just made it three times fatter.

Then he started thinking about the blocks his toddler, Amy, liked to play with. The image of two triangular blocks forming a rectangle started dancing through his head.

Thinkpad in hand, he rushed to the copier room and flipped the computer over to photocopy its keyboard. He started cutting up the image and eventually came up with two triangular pieces that could interlock in a shape that fit with the 10.5-inch display screen.

The resulting prototype was a hit with IBM executives, and he soon found himself with a team of engineers and technical people working to implement his paper idea into a commercial product. Less than two years later, after months of travel and long stretches away from his family, Mr. Karidis saw his invention become a reality.

There were travails along the way, with virtually every day bringing a new technical problem. Occasionally, ingenious solutions that struck in the middle of the night proved to be less than brilliant by daylight. "In the middle of the night, the idea sounded good, but the next day when you tried to explain it, it was like, 'Boy, that's really dumb,' " Mr. Karidis said.

One important aspect of the invention was ensuring that it could withstand repeated use without breaking. That was especially critical because the engineers knew the mere novelty of the keyboard was sure to instigate many more openings and closings than endured by the normal notebook PC.

Even Mr. McVicker's 2 1/2 -year-old played with the box at home, delighting in the keyboard as it popped open like a jack-in-the-box. "It passed the 2-year-old torture test," Mr. McVicker said.

In fact, the robotic arm that tested the box, opening and slamming the top more than 25,000 times, broke before the Butterfly showed any sign of doing so, the engineers said.

Having mastered his last assignment, Mr. Karidis is working on his next. It is, of course, to figure out how to make computer components even smaller. His daughter is busy with her blocks already.

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