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Walker Software Weblog: Pepper Pad 3

Pepper Pad 3

Sep 6, 06:13 PM

Pepper Pad 3

Over the past few months I've worked on a project involving the Pepper Pad 3. I can't say much about the project, but I'd like to talk about the Pepper Pad itself. The "Pad" is sort of typical of mobile PC-style platform; wireless network access, touch screen, camera, ~20GB HD, and a "use-it-as-last-resort" button-laden keyboard. The Pad's special features are an IR blaster so it can mimic a remote and it runs Linux. Whenever I show the Pepper Pad to someone, their first words are "I want one!" But after playing with it for 10 minutes the reactions cools to "If someone gave it to me, I might use it." Well, it should be noted that this device is aimed at the home consumer market, hence the IR Blaster and lack of spreadsheets or proprietary email protocols.

What's wrong with the Pepper Pad? First and foremost, boot/wake time. The device takes a good 2-3 minutes to boot up and over 60 seconds to wake from sleep. Battery life is about what you would expect from a average laptop -- around 2 hours on the highest brightness setting and 4 hours on the lowest. So why even pretend to use this device as remote control if it takes 60+ seconds to wake and only lasts 4 hours at a shot?

Next on the list, the WiFi receiver is dodgy at best. In the same spots my PowerBook has no trouble, the Pad will randomly drop it's connection. Also I've had the device lock-up a few times when disabling or enabling the WiFi -- which you need to do a lot since sometimes the damn refuses to get an IP address.

Third, it looks like an overgrown PDA or an undersized laptop and has weaknesses of both and the strengths of neither. It's too bulky to carry around and lacks some basic PIM features even if you did. No syncing of documents or photos beyond email. Doesn't have a system wide onscreen keyboard or handwriting recognition. It lacks a usable physical keyboard (my LG enV has a better keyboard). The spilt design keyboard is awkward to use, doubly so if your using the stylus as well.

Then there is the camera. WTF? It is mounted on the front to left of the screen. There isn't a video-conferencing app, but even if there was, the camera is mounted in the wrong place. People would see about a quarter of your head. You can't take pictures on anything in front of you since the display is your only feedback and it must point toward the subject. It's hard to even take a decent self portrait with the device.

The Pepper Pad is basically meant for home use, that is, in the home. Comparing the size to by 17in PowerBook G4: it is about as wide, a little thicker, and more the half as deep. You can surf the net and the brower (FireFox modded for the pad) supports Flash. You can check and write email. There's an ebook reader I didn't try, and a photo organizer. That is not much function from a device that is more expensive that some laptops. If you want to surf the net from the couch, get Opera for the Wii or pull out a laptop. If you want to surf the net and email from other rooms (or maybe actually go mobile) get an iPhone (or other smart-phone if your primarily concerned with email). Wii and iPhone are both cheaper than the Pepper Pad. The only market the thing actually serves is people who buy things because they run Linux.

h2. WWAD

When I received the first unit a few months back, it was before Apple released the iPhone. After seeing the Pepper Pad, more than one person asked "I wonder what it would be like if Apple made it?". At first, I thought iPhone was the answer, but the Pepper Pad is a different class of device. The Pepper-Pad is like Microsoft's UMPC and Surface or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles; they are ill conceived devices whose only purpose is too distract people from focusing on other technologies.

After thinking about it for a few months, I don't think Apple would create a device like the Pepper Pad or a tablet Mac because they know form follows function, and function follows form. Apple creates three classes of device: those that can create content, those that consume content, those that provide service. Macs can create content (or at least provide the means the people who create content). Apple TV and the various iPods (iPhone included) primarily consume consume content. Sure, you can write an email, take a photo, or use a web-app with iPhone but you're not going to write a novel, cut a movie, compose a song, or write a program using it. Xserves and AirPorts provide services and infrastructure.

Why would Apple create device that can't create content and doesn't fit it your pocket or connect to your TV. I don't care how many ads you create of a guy holding UMPC or tablet PC on top of mountain or in the park or on a subway, there isn't a market for these devices that isn't better served by some other device: smart-phone or laptop.

A lot of people think the way to solve the browser-only UMPC problem is with voice control. Sure it looks all nice and sci-fi. If you watched the linked youtube video, did you notice everyone was alone when they talked to their UMPC. Try using a voice interface in a noisy place like a bar or cube-farm. Now try using text-to-speech on any three emails in inbox, how long before you go nuts? I can read faster than it talk and I can type faster than I can talk and with more clarity (seriously, If you think I'm are hard to understand in type, never talk to me).

What I would expect to see from Apple at some point is a regular 12-15" MacBook with normal keyboard and trackpad and a regular MacBook price, but you somehow flip the screen to cover and hide the keyboard and use a multi-touch interface on the screen. Probably something iPhone-like with easy access to email, iTunes, iPhoto, and Safari. I'm not trying to start rumors, just saying it seems logical.

h2. What About Development?

When you hear "runs Linux" and "Java-based SDK" you'd think the Pepper Pad would be a developer's dream, right? Wrong, or at least partly wrong. First, it is not a real full Java install, it's the pseudo-Java that comes on a lot of Linux distros by default. Secondly the "SDK" is really a toolkit for writing hybrid web-apps where the server runs on the device. Except no-one would write a web-app this way.

The "Pages" or tabs are written using XSL stylesheets and the datastore is XML. There didn't seem to be any relational quantity to the datastore. Java-based actions serve as controller. You can opt to create your GUI in Java but have to do your own data porting and not everything will work correctly because it's not real Java. XML config files glue everything together. A file whose structure resembles JNLP informs the launcher (called "Keeper") of the name, icon, and code for the application. Applications written using the SDK are subject to the same restrictions as an unsigned WebStart application, but without the prompt for clipboard or file access API. You can opt to sign the application for more permissions but the application has to be signed by Pepper Inc. or you have to hack a cert into the keystore. If you already have a cert for signing WebStart applications it would be of no use here.

The SDK API is horribly designed. For example you can toggle fullscreen mode, but you can't set fullscreen as a boolean value nor can you test if fullscreen is active. The data access API is only good for keeping lists of things. Due to security lock-downs and odd application renaming practices, data entered into your application can't be shared or synced with another computer or application. So I guess I should say the API is only good for storing lists of things you don't mind losing. I'm hard pressed to think of any suitable application for the SDK. You'd be better served writing a real web application unless, of course, your application needs to be used offline and store data. All signs point to the Pepper team working on pointless bells and whistles and less on fixing problems.

The "runs Linux" part at least keeps the party from being a total drag. The device uses X11 which, I feel, is a questionable choice. But that doesn't mean use can slap any old X app on the device and expect it to be usable. After all, the Pepper Pad can only simulate a right click by holding the stylus down for a few seconds and completely lacks a middle mouse button or an "Alt" and shift-lock key. But, because it runs Linux, you can get any number of command-line programs or servers to work on the device.

The application my client wanted needed to work offline and be able to upload data and download updates. They also wanted extraneous applications removed from the device. Due to the openness of the device, OS, and API and the lack of signing on a application's "design" files, I was able to get around the restriction against deleting system provided applications and stripped the keeper's interface to the bare minimum. For the actual application, the SDK proved too restrictive/inadequate even when signed. So I installed apache and PHP on the devices and wrote the application as web app and opted to use a var_extract/eval combo as a lighter alternative to MySQL. We then create a thin shell around the web app using the SDK primarily to show the web app in a browser fullscreen without firefox's kiosk UI. Wrote a shell scripts to do system stuff that were in turn launched by PHP. Add duct-tape, hot-glue, and glitter when we finished the project.

h2. Summary

The Pepper-Pad has so much potential and triggers geek tech-lust even in people that aren't geeks and don't lust after gadgets, but its high-price, bad design choices, and bone-headed software keep the device from being anything other than a curiosity to owned by Linux fan-boys. I hope OpenMoko fairs better, but the youtube videos I found are extremely disappointing.

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