Kang Min Wook thought he was just doing the usual stuff on his mobile phone: surfing the Web, playing RPG games and watching racy adult videos as he would do on his personal computer. Not exactly the kind of things that would make his father happy but then again typical behavior for a hormone-charged middle-school boy.
A month later he was faced with a shocking phone bill - 3.7 million won, or about $3,200. The boy was too scared to face the consequences of his mobile diversion and tell his father the truth. Instead, he decided to finish his month-long pastime by killing himself. It was a very stiff punishment for enjoying a seemingly benign entertainment, to say the least.
In another instance, an unfortunate octogenarian woman became hooked on playing an online flower card game on her mobile phone - for the first time in her life. She played 10 hours a day every day before she had to face the sticker shock of a massive bill. Such horror stories about naive mobile Internet users punished with eye-popping phone bills are not uncommon today.
Alarmed at such an unexpected turn of events, SK Telecom and other Korean mobile service providers capped the daily allowance of data packets per user, though belatedly, and introduced new fixed data plans. However, this series of scandalous news stories left Koreans gun-shy about mobile Internet usage.
It is little wonder that the average Internet usage rate of Korean mobile subscribers has remained at a meager 10 percent for years, despite the best efforts of local carriers. In contrast, a whopping 54 percent of Japanese users accessed the Internet from their phones in 2007, according to Video Research Interactive.
For the average Korean, mobile Internet use has remained the exotic hobby of a few early adopters. There are a number of reasons for this: The screens of average handsets are too tiny for pain-free Web browsing, home-grown user interfaces are clunky and service providers built heavy walled gardens around their poor content and charged ridiculously exorbitant prices.
The “Jesus phone” from the Cupertino, California, company shattered all these preconceptions in a day. Apple’s iPhone proved that sleek Web-browsing beyond any carefully groomed walled garden is feasible and even enjoyable on a tiny screen if assisted by intuitive software, all without paying a dime to greedy telcos thanks to its Wi-Fi connectivity.
The intensity of pent-up demand for iPhone in Korea could have been easily anticipated. Apple was selling tens of thousands of iPod Touches - an iPhone without a phone - in Korea, even before the series of negotiations between Apple and SK Telecom and KTF reportedly bogged down due to their differences on a host of issues ranging from data bill sharing schemes, restriction of local wireless standards and more recently, the sharp depreciation of the Korean won.
When some 65,000 Koreans placed orders for iPhones within just a few days of its official debut on Nov. 28, however, it prompted pandemonium on the national post office network. KT, the iPhone distributor in Korea was simply unable to handle the unexpected surge of demand for the Jesus phone and bungled its shipping - deliveries were delayed by more than two days, frustrating those anxiously waiting on Korean iPhones. Hundreds of the faithful, too excited to wait until the Monday morning, raided scores of post offices across the nation on Sunday after tracking down their iPhones sleeping in the local warehouse.
The first batch of 200,000 iPhones imported for the launch reportedly sold out and KT is rumored to have placed an immediate order for an additional 50,000 phones to be shipped from China, baffling many industry watchers who’ve been purposefully playing down the iPhone as a tempest in a teapot.
Together with some half million iPod Touches estimated to be in Korea, the iPhone is posing a serious threat to the proprietary content sales model of local carriers, as iPhone and iTouch owners download tens of thousands of applications and content from Apple’s App Store every day, bypassing the walled garden via the Wi-Fi loophole.
With many market analysts now revising their prediction of iPhone sales this holiday season from as low as 100,000 to more than half a million, its looming presence is being keenly felt across the local wireless industry. Samsung and LG launched a series of touch-screen phones that mimic iPhone’s haptic user interface and full browsing features. With the unveiling of Skype for iPhone/iPod Touch and a suite of other VoIP applications, iPhone is now breaking into the home turf of telcos, their mainstay and cash cow. A big “iHole” is finally being bored in the walled gardens of Korean telcos.
“The consumer reaction to iPhone is way more intense than initially expected, reshuffling the Korean mobile content sector on the way,” a blogger excited about his new iPhone noted, “iPhone will shatter the hardware-centric mindset of Samsung and other Korean handset manufacturers, opening the way for thousands of Korean software developers to experiment with new ideas.”
Sure enough, SK Telecom launched its own Korean app store last summer and allowed submitted applications to work on any phone or any carrier, as a rebuke to the closed architecture of the Apple App Store. Industry observers, however, are skeptical that Korean telcos are prepared to embrace their own app stores anytime soon, which will inevitably wither their lucrative data packet businesses.
The lesson we learned from combining computers, broadband and the Internet in the 1990s is that the Web blossomed when each player performed its own role very well without spilling over onto other’s turfs. Today’s phones are morphing into the computers of 10 years ago and the Web is waiting to flex its muscle on the screens of such smart phones.
One missing link in this mobile triple play is the telcos. The problems we see in the Korean mobile echo sphere are happening because the players don’t want to remain as uncluttered wireless broadband pipes but try to be everything, delaying the mobile revolution on its way.
History teaches us, however, that for every wall ever built, people have always found a loophole - in this case a big iHole.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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