Sunday, March 06, 2011

Pirates of Silicon Valley

A few weeks ago my computer started to switch itself off randomly. Given the construction quality of our apartment building, coupled with the dubious nature of the electrical system here, I wasn't sure at first what the cause was. But finally I concluded it was probably the power supply unit, and that I’d have to buy another to test out the theory.

I thought that meant another trip to the large computer store in Nampodong. In fact it's not really one store so much as a series of separate businesses clustered together on two floors of a building near the station, and it's a rarity, because for all Busan often feels like a city full of shops, places selling computers are – I think - relatively thin on the ground. When I first came here in 2006 I quickly explained it as being indicative of the high number of 'PC Bangs' where people can go and access the Internet, and allegedly people were also using their phones to surf the Net, an assertion that later I came to doubt because of the high data charges. But before I travelled to Nampodong, I remembered seeing what improbably looked like a small computer store near us and went to investigate, and I wasn't disappointed.

Many years ago I bought my first new computer in the anonymous basement of an industrial air compression company, which served as a metaphor for the underground nature of the home computing market at the time. It was rough, you had to be careful to avoid tripping over some discarded piece of technology on the floor, and it smelt of cheap chemicals heated dangerously above room temperature by questionably built power supplies. So perhaps that's why I took an immediate liking to my local computer shop, because nothing had changed, and 30 PC power supply units stacked on a shelf by the door said I was likely to be going home with what I came for.

Perhaps it's indicative of the nature of crime in Korea that my wife had to shout upstairs to where the proprietor seemed to be living several times to get his attention. So my polite refusal to follow my instincts and start physically investigating the contents on the shelves and floor around me seemed rather redundant under the circumstances. Many shops are like this in Korea and it never ceases to seem bizarre coming from a country where it’s almost second-nature to steal anything which isn't nailed down. In fact, many people dismiss the British Empire as mere colonialism, but it was really organised as more of a global heist - a sort of Ocean's 11,000,000 if you will.

When a computer starts losing power intermittently, you can’t guarantee that the power supply unit is the root cause of the fault. CPUs are designed to shut off when they overheat, motherboard issues can come into play, and even wiring could be to blame, so there was always going to be a backup plan. And there had to be; the computer ran my automated trading bots and they need to be running all the time. So my backup plan was buying a new PC.

Because I ended up doing a lot of research - with time I really don't have - for the prospective new machine, by the time I stood in the local computer store I was able to speak fluent PC jargon so well once again that my wife barely needed to translate my prospective shopping list with the proprietor. I might not speak Korean, and he not English, but both of us spoke jargon. But I'd also been searching around online, a more difficult task than it should be, due to the Korean propensity to use eBay-like (and eBay-owned) sites Auction and Gmarket to buy almost everything, whereas I prefer apparently proper online retailers like Hacker that have their own websites.

A few years ago when I was last looking to buy a PC here, I went into a computer store, and the owner said that if I bought a machine there he'd "load it with all the software". Which software? Anything I wanted. It's a constant source of incredulity here when I explain that I want to buy a copy of Windows, and over the last few years the numerous Windows XP Professional screensavers I've been witness to in shops have raised questions in my mind as to why so many people in Korea woul buy the more expensive copy of XP, when it’s completely unnecessary in a retail environment – the suspicion being that they didn't.

Koreans generally don’t seem to concern themselves with computer security but I do, which is why I never run pirated software on my systems. It's a relatively trivial matter to insert spyware in pirated software installers or even the software themselves. As a financial trader I need to be aggressive about network security. So when I told the owner of the newly found store that I wanted to buy a copy of Windows, and he said that he didn’t have any in stock, a look of surprise completely failed to cross my face. But perhaps it was because I wanted to buy Windows 7 Ultimate, a version of Windows so completely unnecessary for all but the narrowest of niches of customers, that even the salesman at Hacker laughed when my wife asked whether it could be bought with a system.

Unfortunately my inability to buy Windows from the local computer shop meant that I'd have to be ordering that from Hacker, so why not the entire PC at the same time? Sometimes it’s the little details of a PC build that can set things apart, and while Hacker’s choices weren’t always perfect, they'd chosen a case from Korean manufacturer Zalman that I liked due to its excellent ventilation. I doubted whether my increasingly specific requirements could be met locally, and more to the point dragging my very busy wife to the store again one or two times to run through my now highly detailed specification while my mother-in-law babysat didn’t seem the best use of anyone's time. And sadly that’s how I ended up buying from Hacker, again, rather than supporting my local economy.

Hacker claim that any system bought before 3pm will be delivered the next day, but having ordered ten minutes before that deadline I wasn't too hopeful. On the other hand, much to their surprise I needed no hard drive partitioning or Windows installation because I planned to do it myself, so that undoubtedly helped. It arrived at 12.50pm the next day. In the UK, we'd call that just short of six business hours later. And Hacker are located in Seoul.

By comparison, I went through a period a few years ago when I ordered so many machines from Dell that I ended up with my own account manager, but my gods does Dell drag their heels on delivery – a symptom of their highly-vaunted just-in-time 'customer fulfilment' procedures which one imagines involves sourcing parts from Taiwan after you order. By post. Dell doesn't seem quite sure why their stock price is half what it was five years ago but I have some ideas. Dell have a token Korean web site which actually seems to be run out of Singapore and nothing about it inspires any real confidence.

The rapid delivery from Hacker is not unusual in Korea, and it's an incredible testament to Korean customer service standards – at least at the point of ordering. Unfortunately it must also make it very hard to compete locally, and perhaps this is why there are so relatively few computer stores in Busan. If delivery times measured in hours means immediacy of purchase isn't an issue, one might suggest this also drives local retailers to find their own unique selling points, and while I never got into that conversation this time, loading computers with 'any software you want' probably counts as one of them.

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