Wednesday, February 11, 2009

South Korea's burgeoning handheld device culture

A woman dressed in a fashionable outfit reaches into her purse to pull out a mobile phone that is buzzing excitedly. She puts it up to her ear and begins to talk as she descends, a little precariously, into the depths of a subway station; she has no fear or concern her conversation will be cut short even while riding the subway. Her confidence in her cell service proves to be well-founded as she steps onto a subway car -- conversation uninterrupted -- that whisks her through the winding tunnels beneath layers of concrete, earth, and asphalt.

On that subway car, a teenage boy dressed in a conservative school uniform is immersed in the live TV program he is watching on his own cell phone. The middle-aged man sitting next to him might ordinarily be watching that program at home, but instead, he is focused on blasting the alien creatures that swarm on the screen of his Playstation Portable (PSP). In fact, many other riders on the subway today are interacting with handheld electronic devices that come in a dizzying array of colors, sizes, and shapes.

For a Western visitor, visiting Seoul for the first time might induce a 21st-century version of culture shock. For while he or she may be prepared for differences in language and custom by the benefit of being well-traveled, few things can prepare such a visitor for the advanced stage of the gadget culture in Korea. Many of the nation's nearly 50 million persons take technologies for granted that would astound a typical visitor, such as paying for snacks at a 7-Eleven with a cell phone instead of a credit card.

Led by technological giants like Samsung and LG, Koreans have become accustomed to new and exciting gadgets introduced on an almost continual basis. Consumers here have access to all kinds of devices and technology that would boggle the minds of many foreigners. One can't help but wonder why are such gadgets and devices so popular among Koreans in particular? What is feeding this frenzy of gadget culture? The scenes on subways and buses in Korea strikingly different compared with those other big cities around the world. With regard to the latter, you may occasionally spot young people watching a video on their iPods, but most likely your fellow travelers will simply be using them to listen to music. In Korea -- Seoul to be precise -- however, at any given moment, it is possible to witness young people and older middle-aged people alike engrossed in watching a TV show. It has, in fact, become quite common to observe people of all ages playing sophisticated games on their cell phones as well.

So, what exactly is the driving force behind this obsession? Is it a question of vanity that spawns the desire to flaunt the latest, most expensive gadget to appear in the stores? Or, is it a question of the easily accessible high-speed Internet and the ease of sharing music and movie files on-line? Could it be the heavy investment in information technology and the popular willingness to quickly conform with the latest advance? Or, is it simply a way of coping with the long commutes, with one-quarter of the entire population of South Korea concentrated in Seoul and its close vicinity? There is no single reason, but a combination of all these factors contributes an environment that encourages a robust gadget culture.

Many visitors are surprised to discover that Korea has the highest broadband penetration rate in the world, with about 90 percent of the population having access. Vast numbers of Korean consumers connect with each other via both mobile handsets and full-sized PCs. What's more, Korea pays the lowest rates for its broadband while enjoying one of the fastest average speeds. A typical broadband connection in Korea delivers data at between 50 and 100 megabits per second (as opposed to a typical speed of 1.5 megabits per second in the United States). The cheap rates make it possible for more than three-quarters of Korean households to deploy a rapid broadband connection.

This kind of high-speed Internet environment is highly conducive to downloading music, movies and the latest "dramas" (short episodic soap operas that are equally popular among the young and the old) in a relatively short time. Even if one is away from home, but need to access to the Internet, no problem! Just pop in any of the numerous Starbucks coffee shops in Korea, and you can easily get hassle-free wireless Internet service for your notebook computer or other Wi-Fi device without the use of subscriptions or logins. If the Internet wasn't this easily accessible or widespread, it's doubtful that portable devices such as PSPs would have become as popular as they are today.

Aside from enjoying fast and easy Internet connection, another major contributing factor may be the myriad "share sites" that exist. Koreans habitually upload the latest episode of a drama or interesting TV show that they viewed just a few hours prior; recent movies that played in theaters, the hottest popular music, computer software just to name a few of the items that are available for consumption on these sites. Perhaps it is the lax laws regulating sharing and swapping content compared to other countries, but Korean Internet users (known as netizens), share just about anything with each other. With so much rich content available, from the user-created content (UCC) videos that took Korea by storm in 2006 to Cyworld mini-homepages (Korea's home-grown version of Facebook and MySpace that already had enjoyed a large on-line audience years before either of these sites became the sensations they are today) to the various blog sites competing for attention and traffic, all help drive the Korean appetite for gadgets that allow them to consume this content.

Of course, the biggest reason may simply be the massive investment in advanced technology and its support by both the private and public sectors. One such technology that has helped to create the "device culture" is Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB), which allows cell phones and other portable devices to pick up TV broadcasts sent on special frequencies. Cell phones equipped with this function have been available since May 2005, at which time Korea became the first country where it is possible to receive digital TV broadcasting in this manner.

There are two types of DMB service -- satellite-based and terrestrial DMB. As the names suggest, the biggest differences between the two are where the broadcast signals are transmitted from and the cost. There is a monthly fee (about 13,000 won) for the satellite-based DMB while ground-based broadcasts are provided free of charge to anyone who has a receiver attached to the device. One might wonder, then, why would anyone want to pay for such a service when they could get something similar for free. The answer concerns user preferences and geographic location. Satellite-based DMB offers more variety of video and radio channels, thirteen and twenty-six respectively, as well as providing uniform service nationwide. TU Media, a company created from various business entities within SK Telecom (Korea's leading mobile carrier and the sole owner of the satellite deployed for this service), is the only company that provides satellite-based DMB.

On the other hand, terrestrial DMB is restricted to Seoul and its vicinity for now, with significantly fewer channels (seven video and ten radio channels), than satellite-based DMB. However, one advantage of this service is that it offers real-time TV broadcasts from the three major TV networks in Korea while satellite-based DMB cannot retransmit in real-time, but rather can only show reruns of the ground-based broadcasts because of restrictions put forth by the major broadcasters. Thus, one must decide which network -- and its offerings -- one wishes to choose when buying a DMB phone. However, that will change next year thanks to a new agreement drawn up by the two different DMB service entities. Consumers will soon be able to access both networks from one cell phone device, perhaps as early as the first quarter of 2009.
The six terrestrial DMB companies have come to an agreement with SK Telecom, to share their networks as a joint effort to promote DMB service. As a result, one of the features that may benefit users will be real-time traffic updates via satellite-based network as the user watches terrestrial DMB. This integration is predicted to bring in extra revenue for terrestrial DMB providers, which have been struggling due to a less-than-profitable business model.

The average price of a DMB cell phone starts from 600,000 won. Regardless of its rather steep price tag, it is not unusual to see these high-tech cell phones just about everywhere you go in Korea -- especially during commute hours on subways and buses. Before DMB service started, the sole way to view TV on a handheld device was on the small screen of a mobile phone.
Nowadays, though, cool gadgets such as specialized DMB players are far more common for TV and movie-viewing than mobile phones. DMB players typically feature chic designs and offer hip features at lower prices than an integrated DMB handset, which has rendered the former considerably more appealing.


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