By WALTER S. MOSSBERG
For years, there have been sporadic efforts to create a digital device that would be simpler and more reliable than a personal computer, yet large enough and capable enough to carry out the most common tasks PCs perform.
The movement for such "information appliances," which I supported, was especially strong in the early and mid-1990s, when computers running Microsoft Windows were far more complicated and crash-prone than they are today.
Several companies tried to build desktop and laptop-computer-size information appliances, but none of the designs captivated the public, and they cost almost as much as a cheap PC. The movement lost steam by2001, when both Microsoft and Apple Computer were producing better-designed, more stable PC operating systems.
Information appliances actually did arrive, but in a different guise -- the smart cellphone and the advanced personal digital assistant, or PDA. These hand-held devices are gradually accumulating the hardware power and software selection needed to do most core PC tasks, like Web surfing, email and even document creation.
Now, however, a small Massachusetts startup company is making another go at the full-size information appliance. The company, Pepper Computer, is launching a slick-looking tablet device called the Pepper Pad, which it hopes will attract PC users and nonusers alike as a simple, convenient tool for using the Internet, playing digital media, keeping a journal and more.
The idea is to offer something as convenient and simple as a Web-connected PDA without the complexity and security problems of a PC. The rugged device even has a tiny, built-in keyboard that can be used for thumb typing. It also comes with desktop software that lets users wirelessly synchronize the Pepper Pad's contents with a Windows PC (Mac compatibility is in the works).
In my tests of the Pepper Pad over the past few days, I found it mostly did what was promised, but it isn't quite as easy and intuitive to use as its makers claim. Many of its built-in programs offer limited functionality and seem rough around the edges. And, at $799, it costs more than some laptops and much more than a basic desktop PC.