The netbook sector is one of the hottest spaces in tech, so it’s no surprise that IBM has thrown its hat into the ring with its new Smart Work package. What is surprising is that the computer giant is angling for market share in Africa and the developing world, introducing a cloud- and premise-based software package running on open-source Linux programs instead of Microsoft Windows (the most popular operating system for PCs and netbooks alike).
The Smart Work package aims to bridge the digital divide in places like Africa by coupling the low-cost of netbooks with non-proprietary systems software, bringing relatively high-powered computing to African businesses at a reduced cost. By leapfrogging PCs altogether and sidestepping Windows, IBM hopes to provide email, word processing, spreadsheets, social networking and the like to populations that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.
IBM sees the software package as helping nations with limited resources reduce the funds they spend on technology and shift them to other “mission-critical” initiatives like health care and education. Using IBM’s Open Document Format, IBM estimates governments and businesses can save up to 50 percent per individual against the licensing and administrative costs of Windows-based desktops.
IBM isn’t the first to bring increased computing power to the developing world with the hope of catalyzing education and economic growth. One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit devoted to bringing inexpensive laptops to schoolchildren in economically depressed nations, has had measured success in deploying technology to children in poor areas of Africa; Rwanda alone has ordered 100,000 of OLPCs machines. But internal debates about what operating systems should run on the initiatve’s XO laptops, coupled with unstable political situations and varying commitments to education in different nations, have tempered many analysts’ expectations for the program’s success.
But netbooks, some of which retail for less than $100, have beaten the OLPC program to the bottom. Creating an open-source software package that can be deployed to private and government-controlled initiatives give IBM’s Smart Work an edge–and, of course, more opportunities to take hold in commerce and education. The loser, of course, is Microsoft, who would like to see Windows become standard on netbooks the world over. For IBM, Smart Work is an opportunity to do a little good–though it doesn’t hurt that the network industry has proven explosive in a good way, with sales hitting $139 million by 2013.