State of the smartphone

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State of the smartphone

There has been much angst in Korea in recent months about saturation in the world’s high-end smartphone market, which has been a huge part of the country’s fortunes in recent years. So much so that it is easy to forget the wide range of high-quality products produced by the nation’s leading companies.

During a recent visit to Cairo after a lengthy absence, our two-bedroom apartment resembled the set of an LG commercial. There were three split-unit air-conditioners, a washing machine and a refrigerator.

When a friend who works in tech support stopped by, he was carrying his new LG G3 32GB smartphone, and when he ran through its myriad features, I was reminded of the huge amount of time and money that companies like LG and Samsung have spent to create and fill the demand for such high-end devices.

And the development and ubiquity of the smartphone all happened faster than a 3G connection. Remember NTT Docomo? The Japanese company fired the first salvo in the smartphone wars in 1999 and attracted 40 million subscribers by 2001. The device ran on something called “i-mode,” whatever that is. Can you name the first popular operating system in Europe? Something called Symbian.

It’s hard to believe the first iPhone with its revolutionary touchscreen was introduced in 2007, not even a decade ago. Or that the Samsung Galaxy S did not go on sale until June 2010. Given that the Galaxy S5 was released in April 2014, that means that Samsung has debuted a new model in its S series about once a year.

One can see how easy it might be to get caught up in all the marketing hoo-ha surrounding each new Samsung, Apple or LG device. The purpose of each media onslaught is to make each new feature, however obscure, or upgrade, however minute, seem absolutely essential.

Yet for all the technological advancements, most people I know these days seem to use their smartphones primarily for taking pictures, texting or instant messaging.

Full disclosure here. For the past three years, I have managed - to the incredulity and amazement of friends, colleagues and strangers - to survive in one of the world’s most wired countries with only an iPod Touch. I have been able to detect no discernible hardship traceable to my reliance on email. After all, there are wireless networks at home and work, and Wi-Fi hot spots in between.

As far as I have been able to determine, I am the only person in Korea over the age of 10 who does not have a smartphone. And I confess to having grown rather fond of my celebrity.

On the few occasions when I have flirted with the possibility of joining the device-toting masses, I have been either spooked by regulatory horrors (illegal subsidies, pre-discount programs, contract termination penalties, the ominous Mobile Device Distribution Improvement Act) or simply lost interest because of the vast complexity of decision-making (there are, for example, 21 models of the iPhone 5, iPhone 5c and iPhone 5S).

Yet for anyone with a serious stake in the global smartphone market, i.e. Korea Inc., it is sobering to consider just how much has changed in the past eight years and how much has not.

That struck me the other day as I browsed smartphones at the Yongsan Electronics Mall Complex, where piles of new and used Samsung Note 2’s, Galaxy S3’s, iPhone 5’s and LG G2’s are available at a fraction of their original list price.

Yes, for me the time has come when a smartphone would be highly useful, if not exactly essential, and as far as I can tell, any of the aforementioned bargain devices would fill the bill. In a time of economic malaise and stagnant incomes, saving a bundle on a perfectly decent late-model smartphone is a no-brainer.

Tech giants like Samsung and LG know full well that continued reliance on high-end smartphones for robust future growth would just be plain dumb. Both companies are pressing on to other potential growth drivers. The Internet of Things - especially the Smart Home - makes sense given their expertise in appliances and home electronics.

Someday soon I may be able to adjust the temperature of a flat in Cairo by using an iPhone 5 in Seoul.

Now that’s progress.

*The author is the business news editor for the Korea JoongAng Daily.

by Bertil Peterson

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