For as much as the last fifteen years Korea has been emerging as one of the front-runners in global tech innovation, but has failed time and time again to capitalize fully on the opportunities. Smartphones, 4G mobile internet, MP3 players, social networks, and mobile payments are just a few examples. Nowadays, the U.S. and China, not Korea, are spearheading the growth of these markets and Korea is at a dangerous position, likely to be left behind (like Japan), if new strategies are not implemented to commercialize and rapidly distribute new technology and ideas on a global scale.
Korea has potential, plenty of it, but that potential must now be translated into success, before China and the US swallow the market and leave Korea playing catch-up, or worse.
This is exemplified by Alibaba's recent US IPO, the largest e-commerce company in China with the largest IPO in history. It has become the fourth-largest IT company in the world and achieved a record 170 trillion won (US$162 billion) in annual sales in only its 14th year of business. Its online payment service Alipay is also now comparable to PayPal. The days when 'Made in China' meant cheap and nasty may be nearing an end, and as China rises so the threat to Korea's future as a tech leader looks vivid and iminent.
China used to be regarded as a follower in the global ICT industry, but it is not so any longer. In contrast, Korea, which developed advanced information and telecommunications technologies at least a decade earlier than its rivals, is on the verge of a crisis. It has had to witness its innovative technologies commercialized first by the U.S. and China on repeat occasions. let's have a look at a few examples:
- Samsung unveiled the world’s first Windows OS-based smartphone, MITS, back in 2003. However, it lost the market initiative to Apple due to the lack of a globalization strategy.
- Wireless broadband, also known as WiBro, was put into commercial use in 2006, five years ahead of LTE, but disappeared after a failure of globalization.
- In the MP3 player industry, Korea has had to lose patent fees amounting to three trillion won (US$2.8 billion).
- Cyworld, one of the world’s first social networks, lost its market leadership to Facebook, while overlooking the emergence of the mobile era.
- Danal, which developed a mobile phone-based payment service ahead of any others in the early 2000s, is still struggling to increase its global market share.
- Today, Kakao Talk boasts some of the best features of any similar social/messaging service, but has thus far failed to capture markets beyond Korea and has failed to monetize the 110M global users it has.
What has caused these failings?
One reason is certainly that many of these technologies were built for the domestic market, making the transition to global much more difficult. Another reason is Korea's poor track record in PR, at the government, corporate and small enterprise level. Even today, foreign ideas about Korea are dominated by North Korea, and many in the West still think Samsung is a Japanese brand. The Halyu wave is certainly helping, but is it enough?
Perhaps one of the most fundamental causes of this failing is a lack of the government’s future ICT strategy. In the past, the government failed to systematically support companies with innovative technologies, and actually hindered them with unusual restrictions, favoring support for a handfull of corporate giants with strong political connections. For instance, mobile carriers limited WiFi features in the MITS because the government insisted upon the national platform standard of WIPI for feature phones, nipping the growth of local smartphone industry in the bud before it bloomed.
Despite their shortcomings, Korean companies have managed to dominate the global smartphone market in recent years. However, Chinese manufacturers are now poised to catch up with them with cheap handsets in emerging markets. And in developed countries, Apple is still a robust challenger.
The ICT industry of Korea has to seek new growth drivers based on its past accomplishments, and these are likely to come from small to medium enterprises. However, the creative economy drive of the Korean government cannot be achieved with assistance for venture firms and start-ups alone. More systematic and strategic backup has to be provided for larger Korean IT companies for them to fare better in the global arena. This is a time at which SMEs, some of which have a history of success going back more than 15 years can shine. With greater support for these companies Korea can blossom as the IT hub in Asia that is within reach.
This article was edited from the original on Business Korea