Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Google Under Scrutiny in Korea

Even in this information age, the major nations and cultures of East Asia often seem inscrutable to the mainstream western press. Since mid-April, the international media, led by business writers and technology blogs have been abuzz with news from South Korea. There, two leading internet portals, Naver and Daum, had lodged a complaint against Google with the Korea Fair Trade Commission, the nation’s competition and antitrust regulator. They alleged that Google unfairly used its status in the mobile industry to make it difficult or impossible for competing search services to be installed on Android devices in Korea. By forming a marketing partnership with major smartphone producers, so the complaint reasoned, Google had unfairly created a new ecosystem in which the Android system was offered free as a way to control the market.Furthermore, Google’s 15-20 percent share of Korea’s mobile search market could not possibly reflect the free choices of mobile carriers and manufacturers since Google controls only a small single-digit share of fixed line internet search in Korea. Google responded to the complaint with a statement that “carrier partners are free to decide which applications and services to include on their Android phones.” However, as widely reported thus far, news of the complaint against Google in South Korea fits into a familiar and most plausible story line. Many reports have explicitly linked Korean developments to the investigation of Google launched last year by the European Commission, and the complaint filed earlier this year by Microsoft. While this story line may be accurate, as far as it goes, it does not go far enough. The developments in Korea deserve closer scrutiny with a bit more historical and cultural context. The following elements should be added to the story to more adequately understand what is occurring with the complaint against Google. First, an acknowledgement that South Korea led the world in constructing nationwide, fast, fiber-optic broadband internet networks. When U.S. Vice President Al Gore spoke in 1994 of the need for an “information superhighway”, Korea acted the following year by implementing its ambitious Korea Information Infrastructure (KII) plan. By 1999, the year Naver was launched, PC Rooms had spread throughout Korea and with them such popular multi-player online games as World of Warcraft. The Korean social networking service Cyworld also debuted that year, half a decade before Facebook was invented! Second, while Naver is unquestionably Korea’s most popular internet portal, it is not at all an internet search engine like Google. Naver’s most popular feature, called “Knowledge-in” allows Koreans to input questions that are then answered by other Koreans online. Moreover, regular searches on Naver return pages on which paid advertisements top the results. When compared with Google, Naver appears as a large, Korean-language intranet with social networking and collective intelligence capabilities, rather than a comprehensive internet search tool. Its success underscores the centrality of language to web-surfing behavior. Third, although much of the international reporting mentions the rapid diffusion of smartphones in South Korea, with over ten million currently in use, some relevant history is generally ignored. Although introduced in the U.S. in mid-2007, Apple’s iPhone did not reach the South Korean market until two and a half years later! The combined interests of Korea’s mobile service providers, large handset manufacturers, and government policies led to this unusual set of circumstances. Although Korea was the first nation in the world to commercialize CDMA technology and build nationwide networks with it, public use of these 3G data services remained at extremely low levels through mid-2009, even as the iPhone was proving immensely popular all around the world. Consumers were put off by the high cost of such services, while Korea’s mobile service providers feared the loss of voice revenues to the new VOIP services like Skype. Finally, the extraordinarily rapid diffusion of smartphones here in South Korea, owing partly to pent-up demand, has a decidedly youthful cast. The same young people who were loading Skype onto their iPod Touch devices while awaiting the arrival of the iPhone in 2008 and 2009, and who studied English more avidly than their parent’s generation, were early adopters of the iPhone and Android devices. Interpreted within the above background context, the recent complaint against Google in South Korea has alternative explanations that do not fit so neatly with the story line advanced by most international media. It arose partly out of a natural reluctance on the part of Daum and Naver to see their market share internet search slipping away with the introduction of smart phones. Other explanatory factors are language and more global patterns of internet use by young people. Google’s growing share of Korea’s mobile search market may in fact be driven by web surfers who are discovering a great deal of English and other language content on the wide internet beyond the current search capabilities of Naver. This would also explain why it is not only Google’s share of search that is increasing with the adoption of smart phones, but also use of Facebook and Twitter, social marketing innovations that, like Google, originated in the West.

1 comment:

  1. You don't say it explicitly but I think you do hit at the reason that Naver developed the way it did. When the service started, there was a dearth of Korean-language internet content, especially when compared to English-language content. Brilliantly, they created a platform, 지식in, which made it easy for people to add to the collective Korean-language intelligence online.