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The Hub of… Outmoded Software Shackles?

In one of her essays, Ursula K. Le Guin described a Native American culture (I think it was) in which the metaphor for moving in the future was of people walking backwards — looking into the past, which can at least be seen, if not always so clearly, and walking blindly into the unforeseeable future.

This metaphor came to mind today as I logged onto my Gmail account on one of the computers at my department office. At the top of the screen was a note informing anyone using the PC that Google was discontinuing support for the browser I was using — which, like on a vast number of computers in Korea, is Internet Explorer 6.0.

Yes, 6.0. The browser that came out in 2001. The browser that most of the Korean internet requires you to use if you want to do banking, buy something, or view most of their websites. The browser that most of my readers outside Korea probably haven’t had any reason to use since, well… a long time ago.

In a very recent article in the Korea Times, the problem was outlined as follows (ironically — but unsurprisingly — on a page not easily viewable in Firefox on Linux, as per the graphic below):

Click on the image to see a larger version of the screenshot, and the ironically unviewable content.

Cutting the cord to IE6 isn’t expected to cause too much noise in most countries when it is clearly on its way out, accounting for less than 15 percent of the world’s browser market as of January, according to market researcher, StatCounter.

However, there could be disruption in Korea, where about half of the country’s computer users still insist that IE6 should be their gateway to the Internet.

In what would be seen as incredible elsewhere, IE6 seems to have actually gained ground here in the past few months ― the browser’s share dipped below 40 percent for the first time last September, but has now recovered to a healthy 49 percent.

Make that unhealthy. That is. if being less able to access more of the web, and being less accessible to more of the world, is what is in Korea’s best interests. But since we’re talking about South Korea, I don’t think even the government can cogently argue that, at least not when it comes to web services! (Though sometimes, looking at the established government’s sense of how free information should be, I wonder sometimes.)

There’s a wonderful article out called “The Costs of Monoculture” describing the situation circa 2007 which you should check out. It’s depressing that I still can highly recommend reading it today, but, unfortunately, despite what are undoubtedly a few new changes and developments, it’s mostly still pretty reflective of the situation here as I understand it. And the picture is one of a lack of freedom and choice emerging from an early, all-out commitment to protocols that were once shiny and new, but now are basically extinct everywhere else on planet Earth. This is why the quote above is misleading: it’s not that “half of the country’s computer users still insist that IE6 should be their gateway to the Internet” but that half of the country’s computer users insist that they should be able to access financial, banking, and consumer systems while using their home computers. It’s the country’s administrative bodies, and IT community, in their resistance to catching up to global standards, who insist that those end-users rely solely on Internet Explorer 6.0 if they want to do banking or web shopping.

ActiveX — used only in Windows, really — is still king here, which is why most Koreans are stuck using older Microsoft browsing software. As one of the assistants-to-the-assistants put it to me one day, “Mac computers are SO hard to use in Korea.” And Linux? Well… all I can say is that a dual boot setup with Windows on your spare partition isn’t enough: you need to dual boot with a Korean-language version of Windows, because all kinds of data that comes up in commercial transactions will appear as little blank boxes in a dialog box on your screen if you’re using a standard English installation of Windows. (I don’t know if adding more Korean fonts fixes the problem, but normal English-languages Windows installations always, in my experience, seem to get foiled sooner or later!)

The weird thing reading this old article is that, having come back from Indonesia, I am a bit shocked — not that I had forgotten this situation, but because the contrast is so stark. Sure, connectivity was always a problem there. It was relatively hard to find wifi zones, especially free ones, and when I did find them, connectivity was still often so slow that basic websites took a while to load, or refused to function. But the Indonesian websites I visited, on the other hand, worked fine in Firefox. Not a problem in any of the sites I visited. It looked basically like the modern internet, compliant with global standards and all that. Then I came back to Korea and suddenly half the local Web began to like crap in Firefox again. It’s… well, shocking. What’s most shocking is how deeply accustomed to this utter dysfunction one can finally become.

Anyway, that post linked above is really interesting, more so because of a comment (also from 2007) signed by “zzang”, who claimed to work for the Ministry of Information and Communication. I’ll quote (and respond to) that comment and conclude in the extended section of this post, as I’m likely to get a bit sarcastic.

The situation doesn’t seem to be changing significantly, at least from where I stand. Korea, instead, has got a bunch of proprietary systems and outmoded architecture and I don’t know if the IT community here is just daunted by the change that’s increasingly necessary, or underqualified to make that change happen, or just collectively too lazy to actually do the work involved. I can say that IT professionals I’ve met — such as those running the campus network where I am working — are, despite being relatively nice guys, completely in the dark when it comes to anything beyond the Windows OS and Windows servers. It’s like a huge enigma to them, to the point where one of them exasperatedly said to me, “Why don’t you just use Windows?” when the campus network started refusing me a connection. (Which, by the way, it does periodically, usually about once a year, when the (really, really ostensible) “security software” has been upgraded.)

In any case, the cracks are starting to show, but as far as I can tell, it’s only in the spots where Korean internet users are using their current software setup to extensively access websites abroad. When Koreans do internet banking with banks outside Korea, when they buy things online at foreign websites, the reaction is so often the same: wow. That was easy. Wait, why is it so much easier than Korean websites? But the number of people doing that remains, I suspect, too small for any real pressure for a change to build up for now.

When it does come, though, there’s going to be a lot of catching-up to do.

Interested in my thoughts on that comment by “zzang”? Right, then:

As someone working in a public agency under the Ministry of Information and Communication in Korea, I found your article fascinating, albeit a little one-sided.

As pointed out by many other posters, monoculture is not necessarily a bad thing. Especially to a nation that needed to play catch-up in the IT industry. A single OS and standard coupled with rapid broadband adoption allowed the Korean Market to expand at an incredible rate, and in the end outpaced most of the world.

Remember, “zzang” wrote this in 2007. What he’s mistaken about was that “the end” had already arrived in 2007. The end hasn’t even yet arrived in 2010. The end is a long way off, and I guarantee it will come long after Korean IT professionals have to spend time totally rebuilding their local software environment. Hopefully, next time around they’ll integrate some kind of object lesson from the current situation into their understanding and approach when The Great Rebuilding becomes unavoidably necessary.

“zzang” goes on:

While it may be debatable whether this is entirely because of our monoculture, there is no denying the outcomes.

Laughable, in part, because of the logic. “X may not really entirely be a result of Y [or at all], but Y is striking and good, so I will continue to lionize X, despite all the problems associated with it.”

And besides, there are, of course, really a number of reasons why broadband internet became so widespread. On a practical level, wiring up Korea was much easier than wiring up Canada. For one thing, Koreans are generally tolerant of a shit-ton of visible wiring defacing their neighborhoods…

This is far from an uncommon sight in urban Korea. I only ever notice it myself when returning here from places where wiring is primarily in the ground. These are mostly power lines, note. I'm including the picture more for the point of the toleration of aboveground wiring in general here.

… and for another, Korea’s small. Wiring a small country is much easier than wiring a big, expansive one. It just simply is.

As for other reasons the Net exploded in Korea: I’ve got an absolutely hilarious story on the subject I got from a very intelligent young professional I met last November, who made a pretty interesting argument that the explosion of the Korean Internet provider market had much more to do with prurient interest in some sex tape scandal that exploded in the media around the time when service was finally available. (He argued that family patriarchs, who were making the decision to get home service, had been hearing about this “sex tape” that was “on the internet” and decided they wanted a look for themselves.

Which is, of course, exactly the kind of thing you hear foreigners snidely say, but this was a Korean guy, one who was well-informed in general and even named the woman in the scandal. (I can’t remember who she was, though: I’d never heard of her.) I’m not sure I quite believe it, but sex does seem like the likeliest motivator for a bunch of middle-aged men to start buying home computers and getting internet service.

Even if this is not true, the explosion of online shopping in Korea is not simply explicable as a result of the positive effects of computer monoculture: in fact, it’s as much the result of the negative effects of offline monoculture. Unless you’re a middle-aged Korean woman who lives in a house where nothing ever breaks down, and who only ever cooks Korean food, then shopping offline will invariably require you to either (a) travel to some distant place where all of the shops of some type are located. (ie. Furniture street; hardware shop street; the kitchen supplies market; an actual selection of live herbs, and so on.)

This is all well and good for middle-aged Korean women who only cook Korean food, etc, but it’s not so great for most young people, or people who’ve gone abroad, or whatever. I’ve met young Koreans who, time and time again, bemoan how difficult it is to get this or that foreign foodstuff or curio, and I always tell them they can probably find it online. Thai rice? It’s available on Gmarket. Indonesian nasi goreng spice mixes? Gmarket. Beer making supplies? Well, not Gmarket, mostly, but online.

Anything even remotely different, unusual, or non-monocultural requires online shopping in Korea. Arguably, the explosion of online shopping is really just a reaction to the offline consumer monoculture, though, it is worth noting, in Seoul at least this is somewhat better now than it was in the early days of the Korean internet.

As to the comments raised on the issue of government control over the industry, all I can say is that it was true in the old days, but not anymore. The MIC is finding it more and more difficult to impose control over the actions of major telecomm carriers. While the level of control is still significant when compared with Europe/N.America, the trend is definitely going towards relaxing of regulations.

Of course, if many people follow your blog posts about economics, you might get arrested and tried by the government. Oh, and by the way, you cannot buy a breast pump or comic book online at many cybermalls now without registering your national ID number.  (I know, I have friends who tried pretty hard to get that breast pump.)

Oh, and every comment you make online is now tracked in connection to your Real Name identity. (Because, after all, celebrity suicides need to be stopped. What’s that? The non-celebrity suicide epidemic in Korea? And what do you mean, the destruction of anonymity could be misused by authorities to suppress criticism? Oh, oh, no, don’t let facts and ethical considerations get in the way of lazy rationalization, now!)

In truth, as a Korean, I feel stifled by the lack of technological innovation and the generally poor Internet services that are offered whenever I go outside of my country on business trips.

Yes, those poor Canadians… how they can do secure online banking in any browser on any OS, with just a password and ID or account number. What? No special plastic card to tote around, so one can punch in code numbers for ten minutes before each transaction? What? No special certificates and ActiveX controls to download for access to every consumer website? No byzantine credit card password-and certificate-schemes? How do people maintain their false sense of security? That’s just so… un-innovative!

And yes, those poorly internet services. Like, oh, Gmail — those poor, put-upon American Gmail users who never have to go back and delete half their inbox because the disk quota was reached and their email has been bouncing for a week. I love Hanmail because little surprises like that not only does it keep me on my toes, it also filters out  anyone who doesn’t really want to contact me (like, badly enough to keep trying, or text-message me that my inbox is full). Or, another example, Google Docs, which by the way, like most of the backward, electronically undeveloped world doesn’t even read the national proprietary document format, HWP! I mean, open formats? Standard document types viewable worldwide? Where’s the fun in that?

Those poor Euopeans, with all their Linux this and Mac that. Freedom of choice? How pesky and undeveloped. Me, I prefer my decisions made for me!

The bottome [sic] line is, I feel very comfortable in my Windows XP, IE6 working environment. It’s familiar, and I can get all the services I need. The price for all this convenience is of course more tighter management of my computer(i.e. frequent virus, adware scans, computer upgrades, etc…) But the truth is I enjoy tweaking my computer and having to upgrade every once in a while to keep up with the bloated and demanding activeX controls and new services based on them.

Two words, one diagnosis: Stockholm Syndrome. The guy lists everything that makes Windows a pain in the ass — including things no Windows user outside Korea regularly deals with anymore — and then says he is comfortable. Like, the way a loveless marriage is comfortable because you have no real choice but to stick it through, at least till the kids are grown up?

Which begs the question, when will the kids grow up?

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