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Posted : 2012-11-05 19:45
Updated : 2012-11-05 19:45

Korea's rebuilding itself on the Internet

By Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman

Eric Schmidt
Google Executive Chairman

When a nation goes from having no smartphones to having them almost everywhere in just three years, you naturally ask what difference it makes.

I came to Korea in October, with one theory about this: that this was another example of smartphones opening a country to the world.

I left with a slightly different theory, that Korea ― especially its young people ― was already open to the world, the smartphones just made it easier for them to reach it and touch all of it at once.

I was lucky enough to meet PSY and have an hour taking questions from students who had travelled from across Korea, who all showed a real desire to reach out and succeed across borders.

It's only natural that they should pick the Internet to do that.

Consumer electronics have been experiencing a global transition, and Korea is leading the way into what I see as the third wave of consumer electronics.

Surveys show Korean consumers use their smartphones with a real intensity: in the home, on the street, in almost any situation. Korea's adoption of smartphones happened with unprecedented speed.

In 2009, there were no smartphones on sale in Korea. In 2011, when the nation had 30 percent smartphone penetration, it was exciting and we were soon talking about a mobile revolution.

Now, more than 60 percent of Koreans own one.

By contrast, it took 10 years for 50 percent of Americans to get an Internet connection in their home. In just three years, Koreans have come to expect the Internet to be relevant to every decision and every moment. That's what defines the third phase.

The first phase began in the late 70s and was built on hardware innovation. Most people of a certain age can remember seeing the first Walkman.

We were astonished by how light and portable it was. Our music became personal and mobile. Meanwhile, VCRs allowed us to turn our homes into mini-cinemas.

But there was a catch.

Software solved innovation dilemma

As the first phase progressed, the devices became harder to use. It seemed like every new feature needed a new button. You could theoretically record a TV show, but only your kids knew how. Innovations were constantly in danger of being lost in complexity.

Software solved this dilemma and drove the second phase.

The iPod used software to make hardware accessible. And that applied to all appliances. Software has made all kinds of complicated hardware easier to use.

And then you have the third phase.

This is where the cloud comes in. And things get really interesting.

The cloud allows a device to exceed its physical limitations. The cloud allows you to have a continuous experience across your devices.

It allows us to connect all our experiences with someone and something.

Koreans have been seizing this third wave. One reason we kept Android open was to avoid global growth leading to global blandness.

We wanted local choices for local needs. Korea provided some of the best evidence that this was the right choice. A phone you can control without even touching the screen - just by waving your hands. English speakers still struggle to come up with a word to describe the Samsung Note. Tablette? Phablet?

I just prefer to call it a cool idea, one that shows how Android lets everyone act on cool ideas.

Android is bringing Korea directly into the world's hands. The Korean developer Com2Us made a big bet on smartphones a few years ago.

In 2011, smartphones accounted for 64 percent of their revenue from mobile games. In 2012, they account for over 90 percent of their revenue. I'd say that's a bet that paid off. But then the safest bet is always on open, global platforms.

Koreans themselves have very high expectations from third-phase devices. They're using them to meet all sorts of needs. A Korean university turns a smartphone into a way to make sure students are attending class.

How? They put NFC stickers on desks. A university student wrote an app that helps people cut down on time spent waiting for buses.

A Korean hospital uses an app to help doctors monitor patients so they can be alerted to grave situations earlier. Smartphones are bringing the Internet to every part of Korean life.

I knew all this before. But being in Korea made it clear how what we'd seen in YouTube and Android pervaded the whole culture.

As it did for many Americans, Psy's success initially felt like a lucky throw of the dice. I of course learned what every Korean already knows, that he's worked hard and long, frequently outside of the comfort of the mainstream, before he made the one song that convinced the whole world to listen to him.

He owned his success completely, even if it was the Internet that enabled it.

I also saw that same spirit in the students at the auditorium at Yonsei University.

One Korean mentioned to me that jealousy lies behind the intensity and speed of Korean corporate life: no one can stand to be doing worse than their neighbor.

That may be true. But it seemed like the students I spoke to had big, rich ambitions that went beyond status.

They asked about how to be a global leader, not just a Korean one. They asked about innovating for global markets, not just Asian ones.

And they all spoke with a clear sense of optimism for the future, something that is too often lacking these days in America.

One student was thinking about how to be a global leader and a good father, before, it turned out, he'd found a girlfriend. That's pretty much the definition of optimism and ambition.

And that spirit is where Gangnam-style and the new wave of consumer electronics meet.

In both cases, Korea's rebuilding itself on the Internet. Where would K-Pop be without the Internet?

It would be just as talented, just as catchy, just as fun. But it would have to ask permission to reach fans in every country.

Permission from promoters, from radio stations from labels. K-Pop shows how the Internet has made it easy to reach across borders. You still have to have a great idea.

The difference is that a great idea can be shared everywhere instantly.

That's as true for business as it is for PSY. The Internet turns local businesses into global businesses, just as it turns great songs into global anthems.



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