In recent years, Lenovo has been at the forefront of exploring new PC designs, from machines such as the Yoga notebook, which can emulate tablets with a screen that flips around and folds back, to the Horizon tabletop, an all-in-one design that can be laid flat on a table and used like an electronic game board. Unlike other PC makers, Lenovo also has become a major player in smartphones, and its Yoga tablet, which sports a cylindrical handle that packs extra battery power and a built-in stand, was just recognized for an Edison innovation award.
As Lenovo’s chief technology officer based in Raleigh, N.C., Hortensius oversees the company’s research into new areas and development of new products. Consulting with employees at the company’s research centers — which will soon include an office in Silicon Valley — he scrutinizes tech trends around the world and tries to determine which ones have global potential.
In a recent conversation, Hortensius talked about the company’s experience with convertible and hybrid PCs, wearable devices and potentially revolutionary new technologies. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: With the launch of Windows 8, there was a lot of buzz about the new PC designs it enabled. But despite all the experimentation with hybrids and convertibles, PC sales have generally declined.
A: Not for us.
I think that’s an important element. If you don’t innovate in any industry, you will inevitably suffer some level of decline. I think Lenovo has managed to weather that very well, because of this focus on providing innovation where the customers are asking for it.
We’re the only PC major that has become successful in smartphones. We are one of two guys that’s been successful in broadening our portfolio to include tablets. And when these deals close, we’ll be No. 3 or better in every major IT segment — phones, tablets, PCs and servers. So, we’re well positioned for whichever direction the market wants to go.
Q: Is Lenovo working on wearable devices?
A: We don’t have any products. In terms of what’s going on in my labs and what we’re experimenting with with users, absolutely.
We’ve got some really cool stuff in the labs that I told the team is not ready to release. Not because it’s not competitive with what’s out there in the marketplace. If you’re a health nut, OK. But what have we really penetrated beyond that?
The question is: How do I really crack that usefulness barrier? Because that’s when you get that hockey stick of use as people go, “Wow! OK, now I can do something I couldn’t do before,” or “I can do it so much better than I could before.”
Q: If health and fitness is not the killer app for wearables, what do you think is?
A: I think that’s part of the challenge in the market. Can they become a more convenient way to stay in constant contact than my smartphone? Some people would say, “Absolutely yes.” Some people will say, “But my smartphone’s with me all the time, and it’s a bigger, better display.” We’ll see.
Now as an engineer, by the way, I love this challenge, because it’s not obvious what the right answer is. So, it’s perfect.
Q: In terms of the components used in smartphones and computers, are you seeing any innovations that are going to have a major effect on those products?
A: Displays get really cool and interesting as we get to the point where we can really start to fold them. Suddenly, you can create a small device and a big device. That potentially changes the game. We’re still multiple years away from having that foldable, reliable, good-enough display.
I think as we get the human interaction technologies better — not just voice, but the context of voice.
Context is really the big holy grail. And we’re still, again, a few years away from being able to do that well. Because that involves everything. It needs to know what I’m looking at. It needs to get the wording right. It needs to be able to deal with whatever accent or euphemisms I’m using. If I’m pointing at something, it needs to now recognize the gesture. It needs to be able to deal with touch. All of these things have to be together and working well in order to really be the thing I think will move it forward.
—Birthplace: Regina, Saskatchewan
—Position: Chief technology officer, Lenovo
—Previous jobs: Executive positions at Lenovo and IBM
—Education: Ph.D., electrical engineering, University of Manitoba
—Family: Married with two sons
—Residence: Raleigh, N.C.
FIVE THINGS ABOUT PETER HORTENSIUS
— While growing up in Canada, he enjoyed camping in both summer and winter.
—He holds several patents, including ones covering pen computing and wireless data systems.
—Two of the things he enjoys most about his vacation home at Lake of the Woods in Canada is the lack of cellphone reception and the poor Internet connectivity.
—Despite being from Canada and being a huge hockey fan, the first Game 7 of the Stanley Cup he saw in person was in Raleigh, N.C., in 2006 when the Carolina Hurricanes won the NHL championship.
—He enjoyed playing curling, the Olympic sport with the brooms and the stones, until his knees gave out.
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