More than any other official sponsor at the Beijing Olympics, Lenovo may have the most to gain -- and the most to lose -- as a Chinese company trying to reach a worldwide market.
Still the strongest name in computing in China, despite threats from foreign makers like Dell and Hewlett-Packard, the company, which has headquarters both in Beijing and North Carolina, has struggled to break into the top three in the U.S. after buying IBM's PC division in 2004. Currently it ranks fourth, trailing Taiwan rival Acer which was boosted in part by its acquisition of Gateway last year.
For Lenovo, the Beijing Olympics is also a finale of sorts. It is the company's last as a worldwide partner for the Olympics, and as such, it needs maximum bang for its marketing buck this time around. Part of that will come through solid performance as one of the Beijing games' biggest suppliers of computing hardware.
Training for Beijing began in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in 2006. "We prepped for two years for [the 2006 Winter Olympics in] Torino, and Beijing is four times the size of Torino," said Wu Min, the company's director of technical support for its Olympic business unit.
As it is for all of the Olympic IT suppliers, preparing for the games is a marathon, not a sprint. Lenovo will supply 30,000 devices and have undergone a two-year testing cycle before the opening ceremonies on Friday. The Olympics has another requirement not so immutable in other IT projects. "No second chance. There is no second chance, so we need to be ready and have back-ups in place," Wu said.
Lenovo equipment in use includes 12,000 ThinkCentre M55e desktop computers -- chosen for their lower power consumption, in line with Beijing's "Green Olympics" theme -- with 10,000 17-inch TFT screens and 2,000 15-inch touchscreen displays; 2,000 LJ7800N and LJ3500 printers; 800 ThinkPad T60 and Zhaoyang 680 notebooks; 700 SureServer T350, R630 and R520 servers, all of which are Intel-based; and 5,000 various showcase models for use by Olympic partners sponsors, and for marketing. Lenovo's hardware was chosen early in the process, when the company first began working with BOCOG in 2004. While not necessarily top of the line, the hardware is well-known to the team and therefore easier to maintain.
These Olympics have a particular set of demands. For example, although Beijing is relatively dry, even during the summer, events are being held in numerous locations, including humid locations such as Qingdao and Hong Kong, and therefore, machines had to be ready to handle a variety of conditions, Wu said.
Also, because thousands of broadcasters will use their terminals to connect to the Commentator Information System (CIS) in order to provide live commentary to their audiences, BOCOG insisted on quiet machines that would not exceed 30 decibels.
On staff during the Olympics will be about 600 Lenovo engineers, selected out of 12,000 potential candidates through an exam system that made serving in the Olympics business unit an honor. Following tests for engineering knowledge, technical skill and English-language ability, candidates came to Beijing for four weeks of training. Those serving at venues around Beijing and at venues in other cities, such as football (soccer) stadiums in Shanghai or sailing venues in Qingdao, received a further three days of orientation and training upon arrival. Team leaders come from Beijing headquarters, Wu said, and staff in venue cities were mostly chosen from local staff whenever possible.
Aside from providing helpdesk support for its own products, Lenovo engineers would also be available at the press centers to assist journalists and other accredited Olympic visitors with non-Lenovo computers, including rescue and recovery services and anti-virus help. This is a first for an Olympic technical partner, Wu said.
The biggest challenge Lenovo has faced so far has not been technical, but linguistic. "The major challenge is the language," said Wang Lei, director of technology for the Olympic business unit. Although Lenovo conducted advanced English classes for its engineers, and required that each pass a proficiency test prior to joining the company's Olympic team, some members still have trouble with "accented" English and "fast, excited speech," especially as many at the games are using English as a second-language themselves.
Wu said that despite the Olympics' unique requirements, the experience has taught him and his company three things that will apply to future ventures. First is, "how to support complicated and huge projects," having dealt with the games' scale and long testing cycle. Second has been how to adapt products and design to the user's needs. "Initially, in Torino, some of those products were selling only in China. Now they are selling worldwide. The user experience is entirely different. It helps us address different requirements of international vendors and their expectations for customer satisfaction. It taught us how to meet those requirements."
Finally, it taught Lenovo how to handle ad hoc organizations. "Now we know how to address this, in terms of negotiation, prioritization, and bringing together different levels of experience," Wu said.
Wu will be based out of the Technical Operations Center in the Digital Headquarters (DHQ), at the northwest corner of Beijing's Olympic Park. He has a simple measure for success on the night of August 8 and throughout the 16 days of competition. "If I'm lucky, I'll be watching the games. That means everything is working well," Wu said.