Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sales of Digital TVs Growing During Economic Slump

This is a follow up to the previous post about the new LED television sets being sold by Samsung Electronics.  As reported in the Chosun Ilbo and other papers today, sales of digital television sets are growing in the world's developed economies, despite the severe economic slump.  This reflects increased consumer spending on in-home activities and also defies the common sense idea that high end appliances do not sell well during an economic recession.  Another factor contributing to the sales is that governments worlwide have adopted policies for switching over to digital broadcasting.   Here in Korea the obvious beneficiaries of this global phenomenon are Samsung and LG Electronics, the world's leading manufacturers of flat screen digital television sets.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Significance of Korea's New LED Displays

As outlined in a Korea Times story yesterday, Samsung Electronics has launched its new series of LED displays in the Korean market.  They are now available in all major world markets.  Coincidentally, my wife and I purchased a 52 inch Samsung LCD television about a month ago, and have been enjoying it immensely.  We have no buyer's remorse since we purchased the HD TV-ready, top-of-the-line set at a competitive price and will be able to enjoy it for years.  A new LED model would have cost about $1,000 more (we paid about $2,200 for ours).  However, the new LED models are thinner....much thinner, lighter and are also 40 percent more energy efficient, while rendering colors slightly better than our new television set.  This morning, just before coming in to work, I watched live coverage of the Arnold Palmer Invitational from Florida as Tiger Woods sunk a long putt on the final hole to win.  Watching it on the 52" LCD television was so much more fun than on our old, smaller CRT television.
As readers of this blog will know, I'm currently doing my own research on the information and communication revolution in Korea.  In the broad context of this nation's efforts to build an information society, what is the significance of LED televisions and the display industry more generally?   I suggest the following for starters.

  • The display industry is a core or "anchor" technology of the information age.  This will continue into the future as sight and visual images are such a major component of human communication.  The closer the actual image on a display is to real human vision, the more realistic the viewing experience will be.
  • Korea's growing strength in the semiconductor industry complements its work with displays.  In fact, the manufacturing process for displays is very similar to that for semiconductors.
  • By introducing the LED line of televisions now, Korea's companies will have a big edge over their competitors when the global market for these devices reaches economies of scale.  There are as yet no major Japanese, North American or European competitors in the display market.
  • From the standpoint of ordinary consumers around the globe, there is no doubt that once the price reaches an acceptably low level, many will trade in their "old" LCD television sets for a newer, lighter, greener and more "fun to view" set.
In short, South Korea's leadership in the display industry is integral to its overall development as a global ICT leader.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mergers and Convergence in Korea: KT-KTF, Android, VOIP

The merger of KT with KTF has been approved by the Korea Communications Commission. This merger is considered to be the largest ever in South Korea, outside the financial industry. From a global perspective, it is one of several steps being taken here that will push rapid convergence toward a single, fast digital network for the future. The move has several very interesting implications as follows:
  • As noted in a Joongang Daily article, it will mark a shift to packaged services in South Korea's telecommunications industry. After the two firms, which split in 1996, are joined together they will sell landlines, mobile service, high speed internet and internet television as part of a bundled package.
  • This merger is expected to encourage other mergers in the sector. Under this scenario, SK Telecom will merge with SK Broadband and LG Telecom will merge with LG Powercom.
  • KT is reported to be working with Samsung on a handset that will be capable of operating on both 3G and WiBro networks. This has powerful implications since it means that VOIP services like Skype or the forthcoming Google Voice will be available via this phone.
The last bullet point above is very significant and seems to indicate that the Korea Communications Commission and overall Korean government policy is going to push rapidly and forcefully for full convergence into a single, interconnected digital network that merges voice, data and television, along with fixed and mobile networks. Ohmynews, in the article cited above, suggested that the merger of KT and KTF might "open up VOIP Heaven." We'll all see about that in the coming months. However, there appears to be one major element lacking in the emerging scenario here in South Korea. It is called Google, and more specifically Android and the Open Handset Alliance. According to reports, Samsung's forthcoming WiBro phone operates on Windows Mobile. This does not bode well for its success in the marketplace, if the example of the Apple iPhone is to be taken seriously. There is a coming battle among mobile platforms and at this point it will probably eliminate Windows mobile in favor of more open platforms ---Apple iPhone, Android and Symbian. So, I suggest we all wait to see whether Samsung and LG take the bold step of introducing Wi-Bro enabled phones for the Android platform.

Information Age Communication --Take Them to the Cleaners

There was a very interesting example of the global and instantaneous character of communication today in the New York Times.  The "Dokdo is Korean Land" campaign has been taken to the plastic bags used by 100 or so New York City area dry cleaners!  The islands began appearing last Fall, in pleasing shades of blue, on the bags that drape much of New York City's dry cleaning.  The move was initiated by Mr. Chang Duck Jeon, President of the Korean Dry Cleaner's Association.  He was quoted as saying "The whole world lives together in New York.  And we use a lot of Poly bags."
A final comment.  This post is not meant to reinforce the notion that many Korean-Americans work in the dry cleaning business or as green grocers.  In fact, they are disproportionately represented in the professions --doctors, lawyers, university professors, scientists and the like.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Speed Matters--I

After reading today's report in Reuters, I think I'm going to have several more posts on the topic of broadband internet speed, so just consider this the first in a forthcoming series.  Not surprisingly, some telecoms companies in the United States want no set internet speeds or targets in that portion of the economic stimulus devoted to broadband internet.   From the public discussion of broadband internet here in Korea and in the United States, it almost seems that the two countries are on two different planets.

  • In February the Korean government announced that it would build an internet infrastructure capable of providing most of the population with 1 gigabyte per second speeds.
  • The ITU, the OECD and other international organizations have long ago concluded that broadband internet is a critical infrastructure for development and for advanced economies.
  • Telecom companies vying for $7.2 billion in broadband funds included in President Obama's economic stimulus plan urged regulators not to mandate a super-fast Internet speed as a criterion for winning the money.
In the United States, some of the telecoms companies are still arguing that internet speeds should be set by the market.  This despite the fact that the market appears to have failed over the past 15 years in the U.S., at least when it comes to providing widespread access to broadband internet.  On a visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul in January of this year, I was surprised to see that one company is still actively promoting its dial-up internet access on a cost-basis, at only $9.95 per month.
Broadband internet service today is what plain old telephone service was a few decades back.  If the U.S. government does not establish goals for the provision of internet service at modern, competitive speeds, who will?   From the sound of today's discussions in the U.S., it will certainly not be the telecommunications companies.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Korea's Stake in the Future of Mobile Broadband

The Economist has two new analyses of the mobile market in its current issue.  The first explores the growing popularity of mobile broadband, using small dongles or modems with notebook computers to access broadband networks.  Mostly, the story refers to operators of 3-G networks, who have cut charges for data services.  It does not even mention WiBro, as it is called here in Korea, or mobile WiMax as known in the rest of the world. The other article is entitled "Boom in the Bust" and deals with the remarkable popularity of the Apple iPhone and other smart phones, and the transformation currently taking place in the mobile phone industry.  In reality both of these pieces in The Economist are part of the same story.  Consumers all over the world like access to broadband internet, and the "law of mobility" is beginning to exert its force.  Frequently attributed to Russ McGuire  of Sprint-Nextel.  (download a pdf version here ) the law states that the value of any product or service increases with its mobility. A simple measure of mobility is the percent of time that a product or service is available for one's use.
It is rapidly becoming obvious to everyone that consumers like the idea of a portable internet, which is why Apple's iPhone was such a hit from the beginning, and why Google's Android platform is so important for the future internet.  Thusfar, the response of the Korean government, its major mobile service providers, and its handset makers to these developments has been rather slow, somewhat defensive and tentative.   The Apple iPhone will not even appear in this market until next month, along with lifting of the WIPI software requirement for mobile phones in South Korea.
I'd like to close this post with a larger point.  Google, as I've argued in earlier posts, is far more than a search engine.  In fact, its global dominance helps to bring into focus a number of policy issues that as convergence of media and technologies continues and we move toward the future global information society in which South Korea aims to be one of the first "ubiquitous network societies."   A new book by Peter Cowhey and Jonathan Aronson, entitled Transforming Global Information and Communication Markets: The Political  , has a very cogent argument concerning what is at stake in the current transformation of the global ICT infrastructure.  They argue that the global ICT infrastructure is in an "inflection point" where broadband is becoming ubiquitous and network components are becoming more and more modular. In such an environment it is not surprising that new services, software and content will drive the market. More specifically, they suggest that understanding the market position of a dominant firm like Google is important to understanding the technological and political-economic choices facing policymakers.   I agree and will have much more to say on this issue.  The future of mobile broadband is in fact just an interesting and important aspect of the larger evolution of a global information society in which Korea can play an important role.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Economic Impact of National Division

The Korea Times carried an interesting article  today suggesting that fear of the "Three Ds" was weighing on the Korean economy.  The Three Ds are
  • asset Deflation
  • won Depreciation, and
  • Daepodong missile
I'd like to focus on the last of these, because it illustrates a continuing problem.  According to the Korea Times article, Pyongyang's test-launching of ballistic missiles has wreaked havoc on the Korean won, as demonstrated several times, particularly in 1998 and 2006.  During the following four weeks after the Stalinist country fired ballistic missiles, the won depreciated 3.4 percent in 1998 and 2 percent in 2006.
``In hindsight, the North's missile launches have negatively affected the South's financial markets,'' IBK Securities economist Park Ok-hee said.
Beyond the impact of actual or threatened missile launches, the reality is that national division entails a military confrontation with the North that exerts a continual drag on the South Korean economy.  This is largely because the media around the world frame so much of their coverage of Korea in terms of the North Korean nuclear problem, its missiles and the six-party talks.  The fact that South Korea has achieved its current level of economic growth is even more remarkable in light of the continuing effect of press coverage about North Korea.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Australian on "The Peril Brewing in Pyongyang"

As everyone knows, President Lee Myung Bak has been visiting Southeast Asian countries, including Australia.   Today a very perceptive article appeared in The Australian . Entitled "The Peril Brewing in Pyongyang," it began the sentence "No one knows when North Korea will do the almost inevitable and either implode or explode."  The article is basically built on a fundamental reality in Korea, that it remains the only nation in the world that was divided because of the aftermath of World War II and the long Cold War. Recommended reading.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Korea Ranks Second in the World on the ITU's New ICT Development Index

The International Telecommunications Union has just issued a new report entitled Measuring the Information Society: The ICT Development Index.  Earlier indexes constructed by the ITU included the digital access index, and the digital opportunity index (DOI)  In recent years, South Korea had ranked number one in the world on the DOI.  Essentially the new ICT Development Index (IDI) is a response to calls for a single index that will allow nations of the world to assess their progress toward building the information society and eliminating the digital divide.  As shown in the accompanying graphic, all of the top ten countries on the IDI are from Northern Europe, with the exception of South Korea.  The complete report can be downloaded in a PDF version from the ITU's website, using this link.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Google and Globalization, II

The Economist has a new article on Google's success, or lack thereof, in Asia.  It manages to get several points right, but in the end it fails to offer a complete and coherent explanation for why Naver does so well in the Korean search market and why Google does so poorly. I have commented on this matter before, in a post on Google and Globalization in Korea , and an earlier post on "Why Google Must Succeed in Korea, for Korea's Benefit."
As the Economist article describes, part of the problem for Google in South Korea has to do with language and culture.   In other words, Google may be able to improve upon its Korean language presentation and could make its services more appealing to Koreans, culturally speaking.   However, this skirts around the main issue.

  • Google is a search technology that uses robots in an effort to identify and classify all of the information on the internet, whatever the language.
  • Naver, on the other hand, does not search the internet.  It is a Korean-language database, created for Koreans, to help them collectively answer questions, which explains why "Knowledge-In" is the most popular service.
So, trying to make a one-on-one comparison of Google with Naver really is comparing apples and oranges.  As I have argued in earlier posts, the popularity of Naver, or the lack of success for Google, whichever way you put it, says volumes about the information culture in South Korea.  Use of Google for search is indeed one reasonable measure of globalization here.