Danger of isolation

The release of Chrome solidifies the importance of web browser and decline of desktop in the future of computing. There is a new wave of computing revolution going on, and I am afraid Korea is being left behind in spite of its blindingly fast technology adoption. I believe here is where the difference lies: adoption vs. innovation.

Since the birth of the Internet, Software-as-a-service (SaaS) model has been attempted (remember those Application Service Providers in the early 2000’s?), but it truly gained momentum with rush of web 2.0 sites and also wild success of mega Internet companies like Google, Amazon, eBay, and etc. Since these companies needed to have massive processing power and deal with tremendous amount of data, they were early (commercial) adopters of high-performance computing. They wanted to monetize their expertise in running scalable data centers, and that’s how (commercial) cloud computing was born. Both Google and Amazon let a company or individual to run their web applications in their data centers and they charge only for resources used. This is especially good for web 2.0 start-up companies who cannot afford to run their own scalable data centers. Current cloud computing service isn’t perfect as demonstrated by outages from both companies. But, you can bet this is where the future of computing is headed. In turn this is also pushing development of products specifically targeting high-performance data centers, and both larger companies such as Cisco and Juniper and many start-up companies are jumping in the bandwagon.

This is also exactly why desktop and subsequently operating system is losing its significance. In other words, they both are going back to their basics, as they were meant to be. There is no reason for bloated OS. Actually some will even argue that OS is really just the kernel and anything else is application. It’s a religious war that I don’t want to get into. Nevertheless, it’s clear that as desktop applications move to the Internet (or cloud or somewhere remote accessible by URL or IP address), web browser becomes the window to all the applications. It doesn’t matter whether you use Windows OS, MAC OS, or Linux OS, all you need is a web browser. There will be some specific desktop markets that always need more processing power such as gaming and intensive computer graphics, and they will become only small fraction of entire desktop market.

This whole trend got me thinking about how come Korea wasn’t able to cash in on its technology achievements. Anyway you look, numbers are amazing: highest broadband penetration, highly advanced mobile phones, highest mobile Internet speed, and etc. But why doesn’t Korea lead rest of the world in Internet or mobile innovations? Why isn’t there a Korean company or innovation that everyone talks about as setting the trend for the future, changing status quo, and making significant differences in high-tech world? Why isn’t there a Korean people talk in the same breath as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Joy, Andy Bechtolsheim, Will Wright, etc.? Then I realized that it was because what we see on the surface is the result of fast adoption, not innovation. In addition, Korea is too isolated in terms of its technology reach. Concepts like Software-as-a-Service or cloud computing should have been initiated in Korea. Online gaming craze in Korea is well published even in US, but it’s a result of people spending tons of time playing games programmed and published elsewhere. Should fraction of these gamers have studied programming instead, we may have a different story. The social networking website was also pioneered in Korea. Cyworld was hugely popular and successful in Korea, but they failed to capitalize outside Korea. They tried much later, but it was too little, too late. A recent report shows that Facebook, a hugely popular social networking website in US, is growing the fastest outside US. I saw some report in Korea that complained Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome do not display most of Korean websites correctly. It’s because most Korean websites were developed for Microsoft’s ASP.Net. This is certainly not Mozilla’s or Google’s faults, and they certainly should not change its code to support non-W3C standard web pages. Korean mobile manufacturers have been in mobile phone industry for a while, but they never have generated hype and loyal following like Apple had with iPhone (to be fair, it applies to all other mobile phone makers). Also, by opening of API and free SDK, and allowing users to buy and install any applications they wish, Apple is pushing mobile application development to whole another level. In addition, Google’s open-source based Android phone is sure to bring additional push for mobile application innovation. What’s interesting is while Apple has full control over its hardware, Google doesn’t. Google relies on others for hardware, and this is quite similar to Microsoft and cheap PC hardware alternatives to IBM PC and its OS. Mobile phone’s hardware is getting commoditized, as all electronic hardware goes through, and tremendous value is placed in OS and other software running on top. That’s why Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the most well-known VC in the Silicon Valley, has created $100 million iFund to invest in iPhone and iPod Touch applications. In addition, Research In Motion, the RBC and Thomson Reuters have invested in an $150 million venture investment fund, called the BlackBerry Partners Fund, to support developers of applications running primarily on the Blackberry.

In essence, I think Korea’s high-tech industry is not taking full advantage of its potential. One major part of the problem is the whole start-up environment, from investment community to engineers and marketing folks who are too isolated. When a start-up is started, it should look to US and Europe (and perhaps China) as its main markets, not Korea. Products should be architected and designed for more than just Korean market. The key to successful business outside Korea is to understand local business and consumer cultures, so Korean companies should not be shy of hiring someone outside Korea, and also tolerate other cultures or different way of thinking. Also, you need more personal investors willing to take very high risks and provide seed money. Successful entrepreneurs should be available to offer advice to those in need. Koreans are no doubt very smart on paper. What separates them and successful entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley are basically thought processes: creative problem solving, seeing beyond what’s obvious, thinking outside the box, etc. There is a reason why most innovations and value/wealth creation is still happening in the Silicon Valley. One of the reasons is general acceptance of immigrants and differences in cultures and thinking. Silicon Valley’s position may certainly change in the future, but so far I believe it is still here. I sincerely hope that Korea can take full advantage of its highly-educated, smart population and its technology achievements to start creating values outside Korea (but NOT with Government initiatives). She has the potential and just needs to spread her wings.

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