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Korean Internet Turning into a Galapagos Island
[Opinion] Is Korean mobile industry doomed?
Jean K Min (jean)     Print Article 
Published 2009-08-02 18:18 (KST)   
The article is lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
©2009 File photo
"Korean IT sector has taken an evolutionary path to increasingly resemble Galapagos Islands."

An intriguing idea proposed by The Hankyoreh, a local daily, in a feature article (published on July 27), is creating a stir within Korean technology circles.

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Why Galapagos? The islands are famous for their unique and colorful bio-diversity but remain vulnerable to the infiltration of alien species because they took an entirely different evolutionary path for millennium, isolated from the rest of the world. Should any competing species armed 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.

Such is the present status of the Korean IT sector, The Hankyoreh observes. 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 mobile Internet.

For starters, Korea is the only developed country in the world that has yet to see iPhones, the gold standard of modern smart phones. Local carriers, bent on protecting their walled garden are still hesitant to embrace the breakthrough phone from the Cupertino, California company, though KT will finally introduce the 'Jesus' phone to Korean Apple fans probably by this August after nearly two years of murmur, balk and backpedaling.

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 this year as compared to years 2006 and 2007.

Samsung and LG may be selling some of the most advanced touchscreen phones in the global market, but amazingly when those high-end phones are released for the local folks, they are sans Wi-Fi 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.

The freedom of speech in the Korean Cyberspace is rapidly deteriorating as well, amid 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 the current government.

Indeed, "Minerva", the famous prophet of the doom in Korea that rose to prominence last year by predicting the demise of Lehman Brothers, was arrested but shortly acquitted last April from a dubious charge that he discredited the government by spreading false information about its foreign currency policy.

The arrest of Minerva 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 in June that Daum, the second largest portal in Korea had succumbed to the demand of the local attorney's office and handed over some private emails of producers and script writers who were accused of insulting the government officials, tens of thousands of people moved their email accounts to overseas service providers, notably Gmail.

The recent developments in the Korean IT sector remind many industry observers of the spectacular failure of another nation in Asia -- Japan.

Back in the late 1990's and well into the early 2000's, Japan was full of eye-popping handsets that were an envy of the global IT world and a torrent of sophisticated innovations were pouring out of the mobile Internet sector. But like the Galapagos Islands, Japan took its own unique evolutionary path in the 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 the Japan's spectacular failure in the 1990's in 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 fall will be closely watched by many in and out of Korea, as a potential event that would signal a turning point in which Korea stopped its evolutionary path to become a technological Galapagos Island.
*For more musing on Korean tech issues and memosphere please visit my blog; Planet Size Brain (link: http://planetsizebrain.tistory.com)
©2009 OhmyNews

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