A small company thinks the answer is a tablet-like, slate computer with BlackBerry-like keys on both sides of the screen.
This solution is being marketed as a niche product, but I believe it has applications far beyond that.
A Color Screen with M&M Keys
The company is Pepper Computer, and the product it's developing is the Pepper Pad 2 (see photo below). This little piece of hardware is a unique hybrid, improving on slate computers that are usable only with a stylus and laptop computers that bear a full keyboard.
• Screen. The Pepper Pad 2 is being developed with an SVGA (800 x 600) screen — adequate for surfing most Web sites as well as displaying multimedia.
• Keyboard. The most intriguing aspect of the device is that it sports a thumb-style keyboard that's split between the left and the right sides of the screen. This adds hardly any weight to the 2.3 lb. (1043g) computer, but allows the user to type Web addresses and other short text without resorting to tapping out letters via a stylus.
• Expansion. You wouldn't want to write e-mails or any other documents with your thumbs, of course, so the Pepper Pad 2 includes a USB port for a full-size keyboard and other input devices. At this time, only a USB 1.1 port is included, but that's perfectly fine for low-speed peripherals such as keyboards and mice.
• Connectivity. Despite its low weight, the Pepper Pad 2 includes built-in 802.11b+g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and infrared communications. The unit has built-in speakers and microphone, but also supports a stereo line-out jack and headphones.
• Processor and Hard Drive. The brain of the unit is an Intel XScale PXA270 operating at 624 MHz, which is adequate for Web surfing while conserving battery power. A 20 GB 1.8-inch (4.57cm) ATA disk drive is included for storage.
• Operating System. Lest you think this is another Pocket PC knock-off, the Pepper Pad 2 is built entirely on Linux and Java. Pepper Computer is marketing this is a plus, not as a deficit, because the unit operates without crashing and is immune to the viruses and worms that plague Windows and necessitate constant patching.
Where This Little Pad Is Headed
Pepper Computer spokesman Mark Metzger says the Pepper Pad 2 is being marketed primarily to major Internet service providers that are, frankly, running out of PC-owning households that need Internet access.
"The broadband providers that we've had conversations with are essentially reaching a saturation point of all the homes that have PCs," Metzger says. "A lot of people don't have a PC and don't want a PC, but they do want e-mail and other things."
The Pepper Pad 2 is a way for ISPs to sell these people access to the World Wide Web without the users having to deal with the complexity of Windows. (An earlier model was called the Pepper Pad 1, Metzger explains, but it was "mainly a vehicle for development" and never went on sale.)
"Even in homes where there is a PC, this would allow additional users," Metzger says. The device would also allow ISPs to sell Internet access with a wireless hub, plus services such as e-mail storage space and so forth.
The idea of a 2.3 lb. slate computer that also has a simple keyboard for short bursts of text seems to me to have implications far beyond the home, however. With its built-in stand, I can easily see the Pepper Pad 2 sitting on counters in hospitals for use by medical personnel or on executive desks displaying the latest news and headlines obtained wirelessly from the LAN.
"We're targeting Q1 2005" for delivery, Metzger says. Pricing for the device is not yet set. I think it's worth a look.
Executive Tech Update
I wrote on Sept. 7 and 14 that an international study conducted at the University of New South Wales in Australia had found that an average of 1.5% of e-mails sent to free e-mail services were "lost" and never appeared in users' inboxes.
Reader Alan Zisman reports that he has part of the answer:
"Last June, a colleague responded to an e-mail of mine he had just received; he wondered why I had sent him what seemed like old news about Apple's wireless Airport hardware.
"When we checked the normally hidden message headers, we discovered that I'd sent the e-mail on January 11, 2000 — four and a half years earlier.
"What had been a nice timely message when it was sent had somehow wandered around cyberspace for nearly half a decade before miraculously arriving at its destination.
"So maybe the University of New South Wales' researchers simply didn't wait long enough!"
I'm sending Zisman a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of his choice for sending me a comment that I printed.