Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story examining Lenovo’s launch of a special 15th anniversary ThinkPad laptop.

David Hill, vice president of corporate identity and design at Lenovo, chuckled as he recalled his long-time involvement with ThinkPads.

“I have a lot of black paint on my hands,” Hill said.

Now he can add the smell of leather.

ThinkPad – the global brand name for laptop computers launched by IBM – turned 15 years old this week. Lenovo, which bought IBM’s PC and laptop business two years ago, celebrated that anniversary with the release of a limited edition model.

Called the “ThinkPad Reserve Edition,” the laptop is covered in hand-stitched leather and resembles a rare oversized book.

In a world where PCs and laptops are as commoditized as breakfast cereal, Hill and the Lenovo design team from Japan to Europe designed a ThinkPad loaded with special features, technological advances and backed by a special help desk support team. In 20 countries, Lenovo is promising in-person help to solve technical issues within four hours.

The price is special, too – $5,000.

But the ThinkPads have already generated a great deal of global buzz. In fact, a Lenovo business partner in New York City wants to redo its storefront to feature the Reserve Edition, according to Craig Merrigan, Lenvo’s vice president for marketing strategy.

“We’ve got celebrities who are buying this, and people want it in movies,” Merrigan said excitedly. “It’s quite a number,” he added when asked how many of the ThinkPads have been sold. “We’re well into it.”

‘Some Serious Bling’

Responses on the Web have been mixed.

“Not for me,” wrote Michael Santo, executive editor of RealTechNews. “I have better things to spend 5K on. And even if it were a laptop, I’d be looking at something with say, dual 8700GTs in SLI mode. Still, if want some serious bling,” he added, using the slang term for ostentatious jewelry.

But at the Web site Reg Hardware, a blogger named Rik Hemsley praised the underlying Lenovo technology.

“The specs quoted may sound like nothing special, but you forgot to mention the brilliant keyboard (most laptop keyboards are dire), the fact that it’s on a par with some ‘ruggedised’ laptops in terms of ability to survive rough handling, that the components have been selected for stability and reliability, and that you get a ‘trackpoint’, which in many people’s opinion is vastly superior to a trackpad,” he wrote.

‘Quite a Journey’

The reception is quite pleasing to Hill, who has worked on ThinkPads since 1995.

“We’re very proud of it,” he explained. “It’s been quite a journey creating a notebook computer of this quality and prestige.”

Tomoyuki Takahashi, one of the original engineers involved in creation of the first ThinkPad, helped produce the limited edition. He’s now the manager of the Lenovo design center in Yamato, Japan.

And international designer Richard Sapper, who is better known as a designer of unique consumer products, also played a role. Not that ThinkPads were new for him. An earlier ThinkPad he designed is one of several products he has designed that are on display in the New York Museum of Art.

Each Reserve Edition is numbered, and Lenovo will emboss the buyer’s name on the leather cover if asked.

Engineering Special Solutions, Features

Just as IBM always took pride in ThinkPad engineering, so does Lenovo. Hill stressed that there is much more to this new ThinkPad than its leather cover.

First, to cover it in leather was not an easy idea to implement, given the common problem with laptops – heat.

“We knew the leather would be a challenge,” Hill said. “However, we knew we had a tremendous asset at our disposal, which is the engineering team at Lenovo.”

Calling the solution “really amazing,” Hill pointed out that the engineers in Yamato designed a system to “exhaust” heat to the sides of the machine “without impairing the performance.”

“This truly enabled the complete envelope of leather,” he added. “Granted, the leather adds weight, but it’s leather, and leather is a prestigious material. It doesn’t wear out but wears in, and it smells good.”

Other technical enhancements include a new full-disc encryption solution, which Hill described as “the latest advance in security.” Lenovo chose to be among the first companies to offer the solution because of executives’ collective growing concern about data theft from stolen laptops, according to Hill.

“Previously you could select parts of the hard drive to be encrypted,” he said, “and we have an integrated chip with a fingerprint reader. Now, unless your finger is stolen – which is a most unfortunate thing to think about –it’s virtually impossible to get at your data.”

Another new feature is a wireless antenna that pops up from the ThinkPad body. It is designed to improve access to high-speed wireless networks beyond limited internal antennas.

“This is a little James Bond-ish feature that says ‘I’m on the Internet and you’re not,’” Hill said. “Embedded antennas actually have certain interference. By getting the antenna above the machine, it not only looks cool but gives users maximum connectivity.”

Reserve Edition features will not be limited to that model, however. The advances made will over time be added to other products, Hill said.

Coming Monday: The Marketing Story