South Korea has long been an interesting place to look at trends in technology and popular culture, such is the effect caused by a population mostly centred around a single city (Seoul) and has rapidly developed over the past 50 years. Every time I visit I’m always on the lookout for what’s trending and below are a few notes I made on my most recent trip:
- Apple is everywhere – it’s staggering how over the past couple of years how the Asian market has been transformed from a Galapagos island of feature phones made by Japanese and Korean titans to shear Apple domination. While affluent youngsters used to tout the latest from Samsung and LG all everyone now wants is iEverything. The appeal seems in equal parts fashion and function with the clean lines and ease of use being a breath of fresh air where good design used to take a backseat. While most other manufacturers are jumping on the Android bandwagon they have a lot of catching up to do.
- KakaoTalk is killing SMS – around the world SMS is rapidly being replaced by apps which send messages over the net instead of GSM. The main advantage of these apps is that messages are free (minus data costs) no matter where the recipient is in the world and you can do a lot more like sending high-resolution photos, videos, share your location or group chat. While WhatsApp may be the darling of the west, in South Korea everyone with a smartphone uses homegrown KakaoTalk. The app is available for free on both iPhone and Android in Korean, Japanese, and English.
- The Chinese are spending – like with many other countries the people spending the big money these days seem to be the Chinese. I’ve noticed an increasing number of stores actively advertising that they accept UnionPay (China’s equivalent of Visa) to attract Chinese tourists. The value of overseas transactions using the China UnionPay cards jumped 44 per cent year on year (2010 – 2011) to 6.37 billion yuan (965 million U.S. dollars) according to the company.
- Group buying craze – with over 400 competitors, the online group buying market in South Korea is pretty hot right now. The biggest players are Ticket Monster (recently acquired by LivingSocial), Coupang, WeMakePrice, and of course the heavyweight – Groupon. How well any of these will fare in the long-term is unclear but the rapid growth is very impressive. Seoul Space has some good coverage on the subject.
- Still fantastically fast – while the western world happily sips from modest 3G mobile connections, South Korea is still outpacing anywhere else with the adoption of 4G WiBro (or WiMax) technology providing speeds up to 40.32 Mbps on the go. That’s around 10x faster than 3G and better than what most Europeans and Americans can get over a fixed line to their home. The main use of all this bandwidth seems to be video-on-demand services such as streaming TV (a popular pastime for any Seoul commuter!).
- Shopping on the metro – while I sadly didn’t get to see this in person Tesco, known as Home Plus in Korea, ran a very innovative promotion which allowed shoppers to use their smartphone to scan QR codes on pictures of products stuck on advertisements along metro station platforms (a virtual store if you like). After completing a purchase the groceries are then delivered to the person’s home. During the period of the campaign, online sales increased by 130% and registered users increased by 76%. The video below shows it in action: