Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Korean Computer Monoculture

Pandora.tv is an amazing site that hosts South Park videos subtitled in Korean and it's a high school native speaker's dream.

But there's one problem. It doesn't work for me. In fact a lot of Korean website simply do not work for me and as I was trying to figure out why I stumbled across this blog post from Mozilla in Asia that links Technology & Monoculture together. The post tells me that practically all Korean sites are made for Internet Explorer running on Windows circa 2000 and any other kind of configuration (like a FireFox running on a Mac circa 2007) is blatantly ignored. There's a couple follow-ups describing some hope and progress and there's even some valid change, but 6 months after most of these stories broke, Korean computer monoculture is still annoying westerners.

So I go back to pandora.tv, this time with Internet Explorer running on Windows (courtesy of my school) and it does indeed work, but not before the site installed a collection of ActiveX Controls, something that the blog post predicted and warned about.

Now in the grand scheme of things, being forced to watch Korean subtitled videos on a windows machine isn't really a big deal. But it's frustrating when this computer monoculture creeps into other aspects of my online world. For example:

Each Korean citizen is issued a nation ID number. This is embedded into the certificate issued by the Korean CA. Thus non-Koreans in Korea (such as US military in Korea) cannot make secure transactions like online banking or online commerce. The ‘package’ (including SEED, the national ID, and the Active-X cert.) that the CA’s distribute is Active-X based, and thus only works in Windows and IE.
There's a lot of geek words in that paragraph but you can see this as an explanation for why foreigners can't buy stuff on the Korean Internets, especially escape tickets.

It also explains why Internet Banking is such a needless complication. My banking package, like the kind offered free of charge by Shinhan Bank, only works on Windows machines running Internet Explorer. Seems simple enough, but this certificate that they're talking about is an actual file. And it's a file that I have to present every time I log into my account, which means if I try to access my account from another computer I must somehow materialize, via a floppy disk or whatever, this file to be examined. After that, I also need to install a third party program (Inisafe by Initech—no, not this Initech) to process this certificate and ensure that whatever transactions do occur are secure. Only then, after I've got
  1. Windows
  2. Internet Explorer
  3. Certificate File
  4. Inisafe
  5. Password
can I look at my bank balance. By comparison all of these extra steps are needless hoops that I have to jump through and they end up elevating the North American system of a simple userid & password to a something akin of universal access.

This computer monoculture reveals some aspect of the Korean psyche that I'm failing to understand and unfortunately I can't quite describe it. It's a narcissism or nationalism that drives them to spend so much effort in developing their own way of doing things that they fail to see the easier, cheaper or more efficient path. I could see it from a perspective of competition or even going after a niche market but why then be so exclusive? It's probably another facet of the culture difference that I'm failing to grasp, but it's strong enough to make me doubt validity of any Korean high tech idea that exist solely in Korea.

3 comments:

Charissa said...

I am so sorry about the completely unrelated comment here - but I am trying to find out what is going on in Mokpo in regards to Typhoon Nari. My brother is teaching English there this year as well and we haven't heard from him in days. The news makes it look bad, but then I see that you've been posting uninterrupted and not even mentioning a storm. A bit confusing but encouraging. Could you please email me at splash of joy at gmail.com (minus the spaces, of course) Thanks!

Charissa said...

Thank you so much for sending my message on! I've already heard from a couple of other people AND we heard from my brother. All is well, of course. He thought he was logged into Skype but wasn't - and the timing just happened to correspond to when the news said S. Korea was being battered by the typhoon :0) It was so sweet of you guys to care enough to help reassure me and my family. Thanks!

big gay al (you should show that South Park episode!) said...

So I may not read your blogs entirely all that often, but I DO thoroughly enjoy them. The only problem is that they're so inclusive, I find I need at least an hour to catch up what with all the links I have to click for your added insane amount of information. :)