TECH TALK: Tech Trends: South Korea Leads

South Korea provides a glimpse of the Always-On World, as Business Week writes:

Glitzy new services by mobile carriers are the rage in South Korea, which has emerged as a test bed for the global wireless industry. Cell phones in Korea shuttle data at broadband speeds, up to 2.4 megabits per second. Increasingly, young commuters are shunning newspapers and books in subways and gazing instead into phones for TV, videos, and music downloads. And phone execs are racing to offer services that do everything from trading stocks to finding restaurants. Why? In a country where 75% of the population already talks on cell phones, new data services are the only path to growth. “What’s important is who could be more imaginative or creative,” says SK Telecom senior manager Park Tae Jin.

At the forefront of the race is SK, with 52% of the wireless market. Some 2.5 million SK customers, including Han, have signed up for its June phones, which cost $350 to $550 and are specially designed for multimedia. These handsets, made by local manufacturers as well as Motorola, run processors three times faster than normal phones and have enough memory to download nine hours of music or two hours of video. The payoff? June subscribers spend more than twice the average for data. Han’s bill runs an average of $135 a month.

Real-time TV access is popular — but only for those who can afford it. To lower costs, SK is looking to the skies. In March, it launched a satellite that will beam DVD-quality video to a new phone using digital multimedia broadcasting technology. The service, which provides access to 39 channels of movies, news, and information, will go for a fixed monthly fee of $10 to $12.

Phones are doubling as credit cards as well. Here’s how they work: Instead of pulling out a wallet, a shopper points the cell phone to a tiny terminal next to the store’s cash register or the ticket machine in the subway. An infrared beam sends the user’s credit-card information straight to the card company. The phone asks for a personal ID number to close the purchase. “It’s great to be able to walk into restaurants and shops without worrying about leaving your wallet behind,” says Park Sang Eon, a marketing manager at a logistics company who purchased a credit-card phone last October. “I hope the phone will also work as my driver’s license and my ID card in the future.” wrote recently about the boom in online gaming in South Korea, thanks to the proliferation of broadband networks:

The seemingly overnight emergence of online gaming serves as a successful case study in South Korea’s drive to strengthen its flagging economy with new technologies. An unprecedented program to build a national broadband network has provided the fast Internet connections required for online gaming to thrive. The digital pastime has, in turn, created new businesses looking to meet the demand for more products.

More than 28,000 gaming parlors operate throughout the country, according to various estimates–one for every 1,700 residents. Three cable TV channels are dedicated exclusively to covering tournaments and how-to shows on games like Blizzard Entertainment’s “StarCraft,” a real-time strategy game not unlike the Milton Bradley analog classic “Stratego.”

The gaming boom also shows how quickly a relatively new technology can inspire widespread cultural changes. In just a few years, online games have become serious competition to movies for mass entertainment in South Korea, despite the stereotypical images of game parlors as ill-lit rooms filled with cigarette smoke and budding criminals.

“PC baangs,” as the parlors are known, are usually clean and wholesome places where teenagers often go for dates. Last year, Webzen invited gamers and their families to an event to help dissipate some of the negative reputations of online gaming in downtown Seoul. Around 30,000 people showed up.

Next Week: Tech Trends (continued)

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.