Friday, September 25, 2009

Liang shang jun zi

Last time I lived in Korea there was little purpose in buying anything substantive, so while I browsed around the electrical stores with interest, we were never destined to own one of those exciting consumer items, which made the act of looking somewhat academic. We can't say what the future will bring, but it's time to try and cast off our semi-nomadic lifestyle and start to create some kind of real home for ourselves, obtaining some of the trappings of a more permanent existence. To that end we have a list of items to buy, and one of our first priorities is to find mobile phones, a task which had been made more pressing by the news that my mother had fallen ill with food poisoning the day after we'd left the UK.

It is of course almost unthinkable to be without a mobile phone in Korea, where they are called 'haendeu-pons' ('핸드폰') or hand-phones - which always struck me as a subtle semantic distinction - you have a hand, therefore you have to have a hand-phone. Whereas back in the UK, you may well have a mobile phone, but you aren't necessarily that mobile, so maybe you don't need one. In Korea the message seems to be at some level - have hand, have phone.

So my hand has been phone-less for the duration of my life in Korea, but I've resolved to change this. I know what I want and while my needs are somewhat specific I had no doubts they could be met in a country where spurious communication is so ubiquitous it is often referred to as the Land of the Morning Call. So I set out to find the kind of keyboard-touting smartphone which I'd helped to pioneer back in the Symbian days through a series of spurious investments. I wasn't expecting to find the latest Nokia Communicator, but searches of Western web pages suggested the existence of devices like the LG VX10000, which aside from the curiosity of being named after a deadly nerve-agent, fitted an important theoretical availability criteria in Korea, in that LG is Korean.

How wrong I was. The first clues came from friends who asked why on Korean Earth I wanted a device with a keyboard. I thought my rationale was simple enough - I'd decided to write more (though not necessarily on this blog and not necessarily about Korea) and now that I've realised that Korea is my muse, when my muse speaks to me I feel the need to put those thoughts down as quickly as I can. The alternative is to go back to the life I had before, when it seemed that the perfect words to describe a situation often came immediately to mind, but by the time I had the time to make an account of what I had experienced, it was in the hack style I gravitate towards in times of haste, apathy and failing memory.

Well I carried a Psion Organiser around for years at university, and while technology might have moved on every new mobile device I've owned since then has represented a significant usability downgrade - and now I wanted my usability back. But I'm beginning to seriously doubt I'm going to get it. The LG nerve-agent phone was nowhere to be found in its homeland, and neither was anything else comparable. At a branch of SK Telecom yesterday morning, a bemused sales assistant insisted that keyboards were unnecessary since 'everyone' could type fast with predictive text on a numeric keypad, missing the obvious fact that as a non-Korean my fingers are not genetically evolved to move faster than a politician through a tax-payer's wallet. If they had human rights laws here I might have explained how I considered forcing me to use predictive text a breach of mine, and how I'm sure the Geneva Convention has specifically outlawed the use of Windows Mobile in communication devices. Further searches since have suggested the admittedly very limited availability of devices such as the new Samsung Omnia Pro and the older Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 in Korea, both of which I am now considering.

Meanwhile a friend has kindly loaned us a 10-month old and therefore 'outdated' Samsung 'Anycall' phone complete with Windows, and to be fair to it I can at least use Word Mobile to make notes using the on-screen keyboard - which works when the screen picks up the pen-presses, which is not always. It remains tediously slow though, and switching the interface from Korean to English inexplicable only translates about 30% of the Windows interface, and not the rest. Which means 'Word Mobile' is 'Word Mobile', but 'Tasks' stubbornly remains '작업', and most of the critical sub-menus aren't translated either. I'd normally persevere - my Samsung NC10 uses Korean Windows as did the desktop I had last time I was here - but I don't really want to be trying to figure out Korean menu options on my phone while I'm moving around trying to accomplish other things while not getting run over my pavement-mounted motorcycles.

While Korean phones have been surprisingly disappointing in many respects so far, there are at least some hints of greater technical accomplishments than their Western counterparts, I can watch TV on it while wandering the streets, or on the subway if I don't want to sleep. But really I just wanted a keyboard and an application to type my notes into that worked - I'll probably find something eventually, or give up in the face of an overwhelming flood of bemusement, and opt for the predictive text approach. Now I come to think of it, it's no wonder the Koreans are so good at Kartrider.

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