Vodafone and Canonical Release a Webbook in South Africa

Vodafone and Canonical today announced the Vodacom “Webbook”, the fruit of a joint effort to develop a low-cost mobile computing solution for South Africa. Most of the specs are about what you’d expect for such a device, with one extremely interesting twist: it’s powered by a Freescale IMX 51 processor (Cortex A8) CPU in order to lower cost and power consumption. This represents the first mainstream consumer Linux distribution built for the ARM platform.

I spoke with Chris Kenyon, VP of Canonical’s OEM Services Group, about the device. Kenyon’s group of about 130 people work with original equipment manufacturers, like Vodafone, to develop and nurture Ubuntu-powered solutions. For the Webbook, Kenyon told me that Vodafone had a specific product concept in mind and they approached Canonical to help flesh out the details. This included building and rigorously testing a complete Ubuntu 11.10 installation for ARM.

The Ubuntu installation on the Webbook is a pretty standard one: there wasn’t much tweaking required to get it working correctly. The biggest addition Canonical made to the Webbook was to pre-load it with lots of links and content relevant to the local market.

According to Kenyon, emerging markets like South Africa not only represent huge potential sales volumes, but also introduce some interesting technology leaps. For example, wired networking is a rarity, while wireless networking has long been ubiquitous. Similarly, developing markets don’t have nearly the same kinds of legacy software baggage. These factors allow something like the Webbook to have a real chance at success in ways that simply don’t materialize in most of the developed world.

While we sip lattes and gaze at our sundry tablets, much of the rest of the world is still struggling to get access to any computing platform. It might be tempting to dismiss the Webbook in the same way we regularly dismiss netbooks here on TechCrunch, but “clamshell devices will remain a vital part of computing for years to come,” said Kenyon.

From the Vodafone press release: “With the Vodafone Webbook, Vodacom customers will be able to enjoy a portable internet experience with the Ubuntu operating system with various software applications, 24 months warranty and free software updates.”

The Canonical press release notes that Ubuntu is known in “the developing world as a legal, full-featured and flexible technology that offers manufacturers and purchasers a real alternative that embraces an operating system, a compelling application stack and access to the cloud.” The legal aspect is an interesting one to keep in mind.

Ubuntu’s core mission is to make computing available to everyone. As Kenyon observed, this means “more than just software” and the Webbook is just one of many examples of this. Canonical is expecting to ship on more than 10 million devices from name brands like Lenovo, Acer, and others. I expect we’ll see more market-specific devices like the Webbook next year.