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ARM-powered Ubuntu 'Webbook" Launches in South Africa

Netbooks might not be everyone's cup of tea. However, when you're targeting a market that has poor access to any form of computing device, netbooks are a good balance between the practicality of a larger laptop and achieving the lowest possible manufacturing cost. Add a free (as in freedom and beer) operating system into the mix which has been tested and tweaked for the hardware and what do you come up with? The Vodafone Webbook.

The specs for this machine aren't going to blow you away. It's a standard 10.1" netbook form factor weighing in at a feathery 2.14 lb (0.97 kg), including the 2200 mAh battery. With a mere 512MB of DDR2 RAM and 4GB of flash storage, users of the Webbook won't be running any intensive applications or storing their entire family photo album. Assuming that Unity 2D is the default desktop shell being used, RAM consumption by the operating system should be low enough to allow common preloaded software such as LibreOffice (the fork of which ships with 11.10) and Firefox to be run relatively smoothly. No specific tweaks were made to improve performance or battery life, with the primary modification being the addition of content relevant to the market.

Most of the hardware specs are reminiscent of the original ASUS Eee PC. The most interesting hardware feature for the Webbook is its processor. In order to cut costs and power consumption, Vodafone went with an 800 MHz Freescale iMX515 (based on the ARM Cortex-A8), making this netbook the first to ship with a mainstream Linux distribution compiled for the ARM architecture, rather than x86.

“Ubuntu's founding principle is to remove the barriers of access to computing for everyone,” said Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, the primary commercial backer of Ubuntu.

The base unit will cost 1499 ZAR (~190 USD). Adding a prepaid SIM and modem with 100 MB of data per month for 12 months will increase the cost to 1899 ZAR (~240 USD). There are also contract options.