Sunday, May 29, 2011

"South Korea's Smart Phone Love Affair Lures Foreign Suitors": More to the Story

I was reading the paper edition of the International Herald Tribune on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver B.C. yesterday when I ran across the Reuters story "South Korea's Smart Phone Love Affair Lures Foreign Suitors."  As mainstream international journalism goes, it was quite a good report, but it suffers from the same weaknesses that characterize most such reporting about Korea, and about its remarkable ICT sector in particular.  They include a lack of historical perspective and a shortage of data or evidence-based analysis.
First, the Reuters analysis notes that the number of smartphone subscribers in South Korea has exploded more than ten-fold to top 10 million in just 18 months, now accounting for around a fifth of the population. However, the analysis fails to note the most obvious reason for this rapid growth, the fact that development of the smartphone market in South Korea was delayed for about two and one half years by strategic corporate decisions and legal requirements. Indeed, the two and a half years preceding entry of Apple's iPhone into the South Korean market at the end of 2009 provide an extremely informative picture of how government, the major mobile service providers and Korea's handset manufacturers, led by Samsung and LG, approached the situation. The Reuters analysis, while not inaccurate per se, simply fails to provide some of this essential historical perspective.
Second,quoting a Seoul-based industry source, the report notes that smart phones have become a “Trojan horse into the Korean market” for the likes of Google and Facebook, which had a head start on local firms in optimising their offerings for smart phones. This is an insightful point, but again, the Reuters article does not go on to address the question of why the Trojan horse metaphor should apply to Korea in 2010 and 2011. The article mentions the dominance of companies like Daum, Naver and SK Communications in the South Korean market and the PC-based approach in Korea, but stops short of explaining the main reasons for this. These include both the role of language in shaping patterns of internet use and South Korea's half-decade or more lead on the U.S. and other western countries in building its fiber-based information superhighways. These two factors are keys to the dominance of Naver in search and the market leadership of Cyworld in social networking, although simple one to one comparisons of Naver to Google or Cyworld to Facebook and other social networking services are not realistic.
There is much more to all of this than can be conveyed in a blog post.  However, I could not let the interesting Reuters news analysis pass without some comment, since it touches directly on issues treated at some length in my new book, co-authored with Dr. Myung Oh, Digital Development in Korea:  Building an Information Society (Routledge, March 2011).  Those of you interested in delving further into the issues touched upon here will want to read portions that book.

1 comment:

  1. Naver blocks Google from spidering Naver's content. So all of the content on Naver is not searchable from Google. That does not happen in other markets (i.e. you see Yahoo! content in Google and vice versa.)