Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mobile messaging success in Korea

Forbes published an interesting article about how Brian Kim, the cofounder of Kakao Talk has become one of South Korea's richest billionaires.  The service, which was only launched in 2010, is now used by 93 percent of domestic smartphone users, or nearly 75 percent of the nation's population. As noted in the article, "While Kakao, in Pangyo–south of Seoul–has certainly aimed globally, its greatest success has come at home. It boasts 50 million users who are active monthly, of which three-quarters are Koreans who’ve ditched SMS text messages for the ease of KakaoTalk.
More important, KakaoTalk has evolved into a platform where users can spend time gaming, shopping and social networking. That’s created a highly lucrative technology company in a country that is behind only the U.S. and Japan in total Android-app-store revenue, according to AppAnnie. Overall, Kakao has 158 million registered users, with many of them in Japan, Southeast Asia and the U.S."  Notably, Games such as Anipang, a social puzzle game, and Candy Crush, a Western diversion modified for the KakaoTalk platform, make up 64 percent of the company's revenue.
As illustrated in the accompanying graphic (click for a larger version),Some of Kakaotalk's "...biggest competition comes from his old company, which started its own mobile messenger, Line, a year after KakaoTalk began. Once derided by Kakao fans as a copycat, Line has come nowhere near dethroning Kakao in South Korea, but it has become the dominant messaging service in Japan and has made a wider global impact.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The software challenge: more on robots, games, networks and code

In a recent post I alluded to the convergence of South Korea's robotics industry with its advanced digital networks and the online game industry.  These developments relate directly to the challenge Korea faces to become more competitive in software and content, versus hardware.  As evidence of the nation's need to make this shift, the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning has encouraged corporations to place more emphasis on software.  In response, SK Telecom began a pilot project last year and, as reported by The Korea Bizwire, "... has just announced that it would launch a Smart Robot Coding School, a program for software education by utilizing its smart robots, Albert and Atti. The operator recognized the importance of education in the course of developing smart robots using smartphones as its brain, which made the company come up with its own curriculum including software programming programs for starters, application use for programming, and smart robots operated by the application. The curriculum operated by SK Telecom has 12 steps from the basic stage for beginners to code computer programs by using the application to the advanced level to develop various applied computer programs related to other subjects such as Korean language, music and mathematics." SK Telecom also plans to export the program and its robots to Taiwan through a company there.
A key issue here is whether the program by SK and other similar programs in Korea will succeed in sparking interest among students in the possibility of a career as a software engineer or computer programmer.  These days, interest in those fields seems to be lagging, even though efficient and smoothly running software code underlies all of the broadband and mobile "smart" services that people increasingly depend upon.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Speed matters: check it with Ookla's open data!

As discussed and expressed in many posts on this blog over the years (see a selection here), speed matters.  Over the past decade or so, I've had more than a few encounters with visitors from the U.S. or Europe who expressed surprise when told that South Korea had the fastest broadband networks of any comparable country in the world.  Some of them thought that Japan had faster networks.  Just within the past year, such a view was even offered in a peer review of a scholarly publication I had co-authored!
Now, thanks to the folks at Ookla, any debate about which country or city, for that matter, has the fastest internet connections can be quickly answered by using their NetIndex Explorer.  It provides visualizations based on a large number of speed tests worldwide and is probably the best available empirical measure of broadband speeds around the globe.  If you don't trust me, take a look at the recent study by MIT researchers.   As shown on the accompanying screen capture (click to see a full-size version), taken a few minutes ago, South Korea has an average download speed of 54.0 Mbps, based on which it is only fourth fastest in the world, according to Ookla.  By comparison, when I did the screen capture, Japan showed an average download speed of 23.5 Mbps and China 22.9 Mbps.
So what three countries have faster average download speeds than South Korea?  Interestingly, two of them are cities, Singapore and Hong Kong, and the third is Romania.  Obviously, inclusion of cities and city-states like Singapore raises the question of whether this is an apples and oranges comparison.  However, Romania, which has a population less than half as large as South Korea, is a fairer comparison.
Ookla's NetIndex Explorer tool allows you compare countries and to drill down to the city level within nations, as shown in the second screen capture (again, click for a full-size version) where I created a line graph to compare Singapore, Romania and Korea over time.
Although other organizations, including M-lab, Google and Akamai and others, also measure internet speeds, Ookla deserves special recognition for making its data available publicly and downloadable for further analysis under a Creative Commons copyright.  This is an example of open data that is extremely valuable for the internet community worldwide!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Robots, Games and Future Networks in Korea

Korea's robotics industry is in the news again.  In an article entitled "Korea ups its robotics game," Businessweek reported that "South Korea is embracing robotics with the same intensity that made it a force in high-speed broadband, widescreen televisions, and smartphones. Robot Land, a state-subsidized 758 billion won ($735 million) theme park featuring futuristic rides as well as research and development labs, is set to open in 2016. The government is also investing 1.1 trillion won to support the nation’s robotics industry. That industry has doubled in size since 2009, with revenue reaching 2.1 trillion won in 2012, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy."
Most of the robots in South Korea to date are industrial ones.  As shown in the accompanying bar chart published by The Economist, Korea has more industrial robots per employee than any other country. (click to see a full-size version)  It is now becoming clear that robots have uses and applications across many sectors of industry, the economy and society. With its aging population, Korea hopes to make much greater use of service robots here at home and to export these services to other nations.
This is where Korea's world-leading broadband infrastructure and its strong online game industry come into play.  In April of this year a report by the  state-run Korea Finance Corporation received quite a bit of attention. It noted that the country's export of computer and mobile games accounted for 57 percent of South Korea's overseas shipment of cultural goods, which came to $4.6 billion in 2012.
The many  benefits of networked robots, including the service variety, are not difficult to imagine.  In fact, the military drones used so extensively by the U.S. in recent years represent one type of networked robot.  However, if one thinks instead of a humanoid robot caring for an elderly parent or relative at a distant location, then the application of techniques from the increasingly immersive and involving world of online games comes into play (no pun intended).  Korea is already a world leader in broadband networks, and highly competitive in both the robotics and online games industries.  It appears highly likely that these industry sectors will converge, and with related developments will shape future networks.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Android vs. Apple IOS: the takeaway for Korea

Two interesting articles caught my eye today. The first one, in The Wall Street Journal's Digits by Jonathan Cheng noted that, once again "In Samsung Country, iPhone 6 Fans will have to wait."  The article traces a bit of history, including the two and a half year delay before the original iPhone reached Korea after its U.S. launch in June of 2007.  Back then, Korea's mobile service providers, handset manufacturers and even the government had reasons for delay in welcoming the iPhone.  Those days are gone, but some speculate that the reason for iPhone 6's delayed arrival in Korea is because this country has stricter regulatory procedures than some other nations.
The second article, in The Korea Times, is an interview with a senior Google executive entitled "Android thriving on openness, accessibility." According to the article, "A senior Google executive said the Android operating system will continue to evolve and remain competitive on the strength of its openness and easy accessibility. Sundar Pichai, Google senior vice president and Android chief, said the company's commitment to startup entrepreneurs will strengthen the Android ecosystem." Google recently decided to open a startup-incubating center in Gangnam, one of Seoul's trendiest districts, because of the Korean mobile industry's growth potential, he said. "When we were looking for cities in which to open a campus in Asia, we all believed what's happening in Korea and in Seoul with the mobile industry is breathtaking," he said. "Korea is now one of the top five countries in terms of the number of Android developers. We looked at that, and we realized that given how everyone in Korea has access to smartphones, some of the most important ideas are going to come out of Korea in the future. We wanted to be a part of it."
In fact, the open source nature of Google's Android platform is the major factor that differentiates it from Apple's closed system.  Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard, author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, would call the iPhone "sterile" and the Android platform "generative."  Companies, large and small, in Korea should take note.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The deepening dictator's dilemma: North Korea bans WiFi and Satellite Internet

The recent news that North Korea has banned use of WiFi networks and Satellite Internet for foreigners brings that nations dilemma once again into clear focus.  It needs to develop digital networks and use the internet if it is to have any hope of economic development.  However, by doing so in this age of ever smaller, more powerful and cheaper internet-capable digital devices, it loses the tight control over information that the leadership covets.
As reported by the North Korea Tech website on September 9,"North Korea has banned the use of satellite Internet connections and WiFi networks by foreign embassies and international organizations unless they get government approval."
The reason for this ban?  Last month The Diplomat reported that housing prices had skyrocketed in a residential area of Pyongyang where the foreign embassies are located as North Koreans were scrambling to move to that area, expecting to use the embassies’ Wi-Fi. The article further noted the following. "For example, after a Middle Eastern embassy installed a strong router, college students in Pyongyang began walking around the embassy in order to use the Internet with their mobile phones. It’s known that North Korea removes all the programs related to usage of the Internet, such as Internet explorer, when selling mobile phones to its people."
Although anecdotal, this adds to a growing body of evidence that Johann Galtung's conception of how Korea might be reunified has merit. Galtung argues that unification only necessitates the free flow of people, goods and services, and information and ideas between the two Korean states, not the dissolution of ROK and DPRK into a single Korean state. This was discussed in an earlier post after his 2008 lecture at a university in Busan.