Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Smartphone use exceeds 50 percent in Korea: perspective on a milestone

As reported widely in Korea and around the world,smartphone users in South Korea now account for more than 50 percent of all mobile subscribers. According to the three mobile service providers KT, SK Telecom and LG Uplus, as reported in the Chosun Ilbo, the number of smartphone users stands at 26.72 million, 50.8 percent of all 52.55 million mobile subscribers.
However, some of the international press coverage fails to accurately report the Korean situation.  For example, an AFP story suggests that "South Koreans were introduced to smartphones relatively late, with Apple's iPhone approved only in September 2009 because of privacy concerns over some of its features."  While it is true that the iPhone arrived in Korea late, about two and a half years after its introduction in the U.S. and after it had entered 80 other national markets, the reasons have to do with much more than privacy concerns.   There are at least three important factors.
First, the major mobile service providers in Korea (SK Telecom, KT and LG) were afraid of losing voice revenue to VOIP services if the iPhone were allowed into Korea's market.  Remember, there was already an incipient trend among young people to install Skype on the iPod Touch.  Second, a unique software protocol called WIPI was still required on all mobile phones used in South Korea, even though it had outlived its original stated purpose and had become more of a non-tariff trade barrier than anything else.   Third and finally, Korea's handset manufacturers, led by Samsung Electronics and LG, had placed almost all of their emphasis on the development of feature phones and were perplexed by what to do in the face of the new smart phone paradigm.
Given these circumstances, including the obvious fact that Korean consumers had to watch and wait as the iPhone spread rapidly through other markets around the world, pent-up demand no doubt helps to explain the rapid diffusion of smart phones in South Korea.  Another factor, of course, is is the presence of a tech-savvy and highly educated populace here.   Koreans are quick to try out and use new information technologies, most especially ones that can help them better organize their lives and communicate with friends, family and co-workers.
It is important to place this milestone in the growth of smartphone usage in proper perspective.  In a recent speech, the CEO of KT, Lee Suk-Chae, blasted Korea's big companies for "free riding" on KT's networks.  As reported in The Korea Times,he said that “Korea needs a new paradigm. The digital revolution has changed everything. Despite heavy data traffic amid rapid rises of data-intensive devices such as tablets and smartphones, no one is ready to pay in return for using networks.’’

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