Announced recently, and launching in its first market in South Africa this week, Vodafone’s Webbox is a curious halfway-house device that will, nevertheless, elicit chills of nostalgia in tech fans who are in their late 30s and who remember the start of home computing. That’s because Webbox is a computer built entirely underneath a keyboard, using a standard TV as its display monitor, and which brings a whole new world to its owner. In the ’80s, this “new world” was programming and the delight of 8-bit gaming, but Webbox has slightly more lofty goals–it’s intended to bring the Net to emerging markets where the cost of acquiring a personal computer is prohibitive.
Reminiscent of the Asus EEE Keyboard, and even more so of the Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum, the Webbox is externally just a 14cm by 25cm QWERTY keyboard that has an RCA cable dangling from its rear–this coaxial cable will connect to a domestic TV tuned to a particular channel, and lets Webbox content appear on its screen. Inside it’s pretty sophisticated, with the guts of a 3G smartphone powering it–it runs over EDGE or 2.5G networks to get its data, and leverages Opera’s Mini browser suite (which compresses web pages to much smaller file sizes remotely) to ensure that the data burden on cell phone networks is low–which is good for low-income users and struggling cell networks alike–and that the device works swiftly.
Vodafone notes the “browser homepage comes with bookmarks such as news, sport, and social networking sites” to appeal to entertainment-seeking users, but also that there are “locally relevant apps such as a job search and application service. In addition, the portal comes with some games, a dictionary, and a basic text editor.” Essentially these are some of the core elements of an online digital life, such as is increasingly being experienced by citizens of developed nations–and which some nations now see as a human right, with all its attendant legal protections.
Webbox is merely a simple, cheap way to get a household online in emerging nations where TV ownership is high but the connection rate is low. In its first market of South Africa, it’s selling for R750 (around $100), and comes with a 2GB SD card and a SIM card with prepaid 100MB of traffic.
Will it work? We’d like to think so. Sure, it’s undoubtedly a vehicle for Vodafone to access new markets, and attract consumers into revenue-generating, long-term cell phone data contracts. But the notion that it may connect millions of folks who otherwise would have had only limited Net access, facilitating the sharing of news, social networking and education, is a good one. Its biggest potential stumbling block is high rates for mobile data in some nations–a situation that Vodafone is extremely well-positioned to improve.
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