It's something regular readers should have memorized by now.
There is a price lower than free.
Note the go-to-market strategy, as detailed by our fearless leader Larry Dignan:
IBM said it will distribute the SmartWork client through Africa via local service providers such as Inkululeko and ZSL Inc. The aim is to spread the IBM/Canonical software through government and educational institutions and businesses.
The short version is that IBM and Canonical (Ubuntu's commercial arm) are mainly going to load the software on government and ISP servers, then wait for the clients to come to them.
This is not how developed markets work. Developed markets work through distribution. Vendors must invest heavily to push product through the channel, as well as support it. This is why Taiwanese OEMs abandoned Linux for Windows last year.
Netbook hardware will ship to Africa running Windows, but the IBM download will transform those machines into Ubuntu devices that handle some client functions locally but can also go online to connect people together. This is a good deal for IBM because its investment is low and already made up in favorable publicity.
My problem is the cloud. We already know how bad Africa's online links are. When the best broadband in South Africa is outrun by a pigeon with a stick memory strapped to its leg, we are talking s-l-o-w. The infrastructure there just can't handle a cloud-based solution.
Instead of offering the software via download, it might be better to put sticks on thousands of pigeons and just let them loose.
In fact the real hope is that the endorsement of a government or university will make this a standard offering on their local networks.
It's up to Canonical to make all this work. Founder Mark Shuttleworth is South African by birth. This deal has his name written all over it. It will be an immense challenge to scale this effort up, assuming the IBM name and Shuttleworth's fame lead governments to support it.
And you have to figure that if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere...but he can't even try for New York until he has scaled a solution thousands are happy with.