Saturday, April 16, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 16: Technology

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


Today I wanted to talk about technology in Korea. I graduated from university with a degree in Computer Science, and then worked for many years as a software engineer, so it’s a subject which is very close to my heart. I’m a technology geek... or ex-geek anyway.

Korea ubiquitous technology hub

Korea is famous for its technology – so I was excited to come here because of that. I pictured it as a land of cheap gadgets and super-fast Internet connections. Actually though, I found there’s a huge difference in how people in England view Korea. I think a lot of older British people see Korea as being full of rice paddies and villages, so it would conjure up an image of me going to the stream every morning for water. I’m not sure even my mother expected it to look like it did – of course once I started taking photos of the city, the subway and all the stores, I think she began to see Korea differently.

I’m sure younger people don’t see Korea the same way as the older generation do. We watch British TV programmes such as The Gadget Show which often covers Korean technology from LG and Samsung, and the Internet speeds, which are a big issue in the UK because so many connections are relatively slow.

Not so fast

But once I came to Korea my hopes of a faster Internet connection were dashed. As a financial trader, I need a fast Internet connection, but because the first apartment we lived in was old, the maximum speed we could get was 10 megabits. This was quite disappointing after hearing about all the 100 megabit connections here. In fact, 10 megabits is the same speed I had in England, although that was the fastest available there, whereas in Korea it was maybe one of the slowest. And it wasn’t all disappointing because it was half the price in Korea – so much cheaper in other words – but there were some problems with it.

I couldn’t access the website of one of my stockbrokers, which was a huge problem. When I got here I quickly discovered that some websites are blocked. Now, that’s really shocking to me coming from a Western democracy, and I don’t think Barclays Bank is particularly known for its pro-North Korean views, but anyway apparently it was blocked and nobody seemed to be able to do anything about it. So I ended up having to get a second 10 megabit connection because that company didn’t block Barclays. I really loved Korea though at that point, because I could have two 10 megabit connections for the same price as one 10 megabit connection back in England.

How to destroy an Internet economy

But then I soon discovered another issue here – the Korean Internet Explorer problem. Some websites need Internet Explorer to work properly. This was also shocking because it basically means you have to be a Windows user. So, in Korea I had to use Windows and Internet Explorer to do any online banking. In England, where many people use Apple computers and even Linux with browsers such as Firefox, you just couldn’t imagine that in a country like Korea companies could be stuck in the 1990s, especially when you start to understand just how few people really use anti-virus and anti-spyware software.

I think people here are worrying more about hacking and cyber-warfare now, but when I first got here I couldn’t believe how complacent people were about Internet security. Many Western governments in the last few years have told their citizens not to use Internet Explorer because it’s too dangerous, but in Korea it’s still required by so many websites.

In some ways I’m not sure that knowledge of Internet security is improving in Korea either. We just got an Internet phone from our provider for free, because apparently we spend so much money on our TV and Internet package, and it works using wireless networking with basically a four character password... which can’t be changed. It’s just stupid, because if we use it now our whole network is vulnerable because of this one weak point. I think it shows that some people still aren’t thinking about Internet security here. But that said, I actually do think things are generally getting better, and big changes are happening in Korea.


I think the success of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android are making people here see that there are alternatives to Windows, and probably over time companies will stop forcing people to use only one type of software. And you know, that’s really important for Korea, because for years Korea has made great technology – great hardware – but the world is increasingly software driven.

People used to choose whether to buy a Nokia phone or Sony Ericsson, but now people talk about whether to buy an iPhone or Android phone – it’s really the software they are buying rather than the hardware, because most of the hardware is pretty similar, and it’s the software that makes the difference. I think the same thing is happening in Korea, and I’ve been reading a lot of articles in the newspapers recently talking about the need for Korea to become a software innovator to compete with cheap Chinese hardware in future.


When I went looking for a smartphone in 2009 there really wasn’t a lot of choice at all. That’s one of the biggest differences between my own country and Korea. Because of its high-tech image, I thought there were going to be a lot of choices here – with phones, mobile service providers, TVs, Internet connections and so on – but I guess because of the chaebol system there really isn’t. For example, I wanted a smartphone with a keyboard, and in England I had twenty different choices – in Korea there were three. Korea’s phone market has the image of being very advanced, so in some ways the lack of choice is surprising.

I eventually did by a smartphone, but at first when I started looking for my first Korean phone I thought I would be roaming around accessing the Internet using it. Then I found out about the data costs – which I thought were very high at the time, certainly high than in England. So that was hugely disappointing, and really very surprising. The contracts were really complicated to understand as well, so by the time we got one, I felt like all the joy had gone out of the experience. I’m probably going to buy a new smartphone this year, so I hope things have improved.

The Rise of Asia and Decline of the West

Overall, despite some disappointments, I’d say my technology experiences in Korea have been positive. It’s probably just because Korea has such a strong technology image that I didn’t expect there to be any problems at all, and I suppose that was unrealistic.

Overall, this is still a high-tech heaven for someone with a technology background like me. There’s a growing anti-fact and anti-science movement in some Western countries these days, and I want to live somewhere that embraces science and technology, not rejects it. I hope Korea continues to keep pushing forward in the areas of technology and science, so that the future here is even better.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-02-09 @ ~19:30

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