An intriguing idea proposed by The Hankyoreh, a local daily, in a feature article published last June is still creating a stir within Korean technology circles. “The Korean IT sector has taken an evolutionary path to increasingly resemble the Galapagos Islands,” it read.
Why Galapagos? The islands are famous for their unique and colorful biodiversity but remain vulnerable to the infiltration of alien species since they took an entirely different evolutionary path for millennia, isolated from the rest of the world. Should any competing species equipped with evolutionary superiority advance to the islands before indigenous residents develop a sufficient defense mechanism, the fauna and flora of the entire island can easily be wiped out.
Korea may boast a highly sophisticated broadband network and a plethora of online services but usually they work only on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Many government and commercial Web sites do not even open properly in Fire-fox and other popular Web browsers, to say nothing of the Mac platform.
“Korea doesn’t have an Internet; it has an Intranet. This isn’t new; things like the requirement to use Active X controls and forcing users to input their national registration numbers have long isolated Korea from the rest of the Internet,” said Timothy Savage, an American and long-time resident of Seoul. He was hunting for a bargain air ticket to Jeju recently when he discovered that Eastar Jet, a budget airline, offered the cheapest air fare to Jeju for an early bird online reservation. His excitement did not last long . His foreign registration number simply did not work on the Eastar Jet homepage.
Dan Gillmor, the former tech writer of The San Jose Mercury News noted that Korea got in bed early with Microsoft in their IT drive, in return for the unprecedented speed of Internet penetration. Such is the present status of the Korean IT sector that although it was once the envy of global IT industry, it is now considered a technological laggard to the astonishment of many in the know, especially in the area of the mobile Internet.
For starters, Korea is the only developed country in the world to get the iPhone, the gold standard of modern smart phones, nearly three years after it was unveiled in Jan 2007. Even though KT finally introduced the “Jesus” phone to Korean Apple fans last November after almost two years of murmur, balk and backpedaling, other local carriers, bent on protecting their walled garden, are still hesitating to embrace the breakthrough phone from the Californian company.
No wonder the penetration of mobile data usage among Korean subscribers is barely 15.7 percent, about 10 percent lower than the worldwide average of 25.3 percent, according to a recent survey by Strategy Analytics. What’s more, the average share of mobile data charge in the monthly bills of SK Telecom subscribers has actually shrunk by 20 percent last year as compared to years 2006 and 2007.
Samsung and LG may be selling some of the most advanced touch-screen phones in the global market, but when those high-end phones are released for the local folks, they are sans WiFi for fear of getting on the nerves of local carriers. DMB for mobile phones, the pet project of the Korean government, and other home-grown innovations in the new media also remain confined to the domestic market and have yet to find followers outside of Korea.
“Korean concepts are now inspiring the world - it created a U.S. $3 billion online game industry in China,” Benjamin Joffe, CEO of Plus Eight Star, a technology consulting firm based in Beijing, noted. “The fact that Koreans are under-served in their market and sometimes unable to export their own concepts is saddening though.”
Freedom of speech in Korean cyberspace is rapidly deteriorating as well, amid a flurry of recent legislation that ranges from the real name log-on system that invited a sharp rebuke from YouTube Korea and the three-strike rule for online copyright infringements.
The government argues that those new rules will bring order to the wild, wild Web of Korea, but many bloggers and industry participants are increasingly suspicious that they are in fact designed to control the boisterous Korean online space highly critical of some controversial policies of the current government.
Indeed, “Minerva,” the prophet of doom in Korea who rose to prominence last year by predicting the demise of Lehman Brothers, was arrested last April on a dubious charge of discrediting the government by spreading false information about its foreign currency policy. He was acquitted several months later.
His arrest was such a shocking incident to many Koreans that thousands of alarmed netizens flocked to Google or YouTube, seeking an online asylum in foreign Internet services.
When it was revealed last June that Daum, the second-largest portal in Korea, had succumbed to the demand of the local attorney’s office and handed over private emails of producers and script writers who were accused of insulting government officials in a popular television magazine show, tens of thousands of people moved their email accounts to overseas service providers, notably Gmail.
The recent developments in the Korean IT sector reminds many industry observers of the spectacular failure of another nation in Asia - Japan.
Back in the late 1990s and well into the early 2000s, Japan was full of eye-popping handsets that were an envy of the global IT world and a torrent of sophisticated innovations was pouring out of the mobile Internet sector.
But like the Galapagos Islands, Japan took its own unique evolutionary path in technology, cut off from the rest of the world. It is now a well-established fact that Japan had to hurry later to catch up with the Web, ironically because of its sophisticated - but highly insular - innovations in the homegrown mobile Internet.
Many in the Korean IT business, including the author, are worried that they are looking at yet another incarnation of Japan’s spectacular failure in the 1990s on their own home turf. Today, no Japanese company, with the exception of Sony-Ericsson, retains any meaningful presence in the global mobile handset market.
The highly anticipated launch of iPhone in Korea this winter and subsequent excitement among Korean software developers will be closely watched by many in and out of Korea, as a potential event that could signal a turning point in which Korea stops its evolutionary path to become a technological Galapagos Island.
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