Korea & Its Big-Ass Smartphones

There’s a simple reason I was a little quiet these past few days. I was out of town, spending a few days in Korea. Korea can be easily reached from Japan, it’s only about 1-2 hours flight from most of Japan’s airports to reach Korea’s capital, Seoul. It was a good time to check some of the differences with Japan, since Korea is fast emerging as the second leader in East Asia.

Overall, Korea is not THAT different from Japan, at least that’s the impression that it left me with. There are many similarities, and many things seem to work in the way you’d expect them to work in Japan. The streets sometimes bring back a feeling of old Japan, not old as in Kyoto-old, but old as mid 20th century Japan, what Japanese usually refer to as Showa Jidai, or Showa Era. A time of transition between an early industrial country to a full blown one. So yeah, some places in Seoul have a marked 60s-70s feel, which is actually why older Japanese folks visiting Korea often say that Korea makes them feel nostalgic. Now I can understand what they are talking about!

The Korean Phones

One of the thing that surprised me the most was the Smartphones trend. In the land of Samsung and LG I did not expect to see Apple’s iPhone in a very strong position. I was not wrong, since Samsung seemed like a clear leader on the ground. I just checked and found this chart back from late 2013 that can testify of the kind of market we are talking about:

The situation in 2013. Apple's not the norm here.

LG is the key rival of Samsung, but as you can see it’s very much an underdog in the current state, much like Sega against Nintendo back in the olde days. About Apple’s position, I had the chance to talk to a university student in the plane who actually had an iPhone. In her eyes, Apple was the more popular brand among younger people, in terms of design, and that it was probably about 50/50 in market share in that age segment. For “older people” (hehe, everyone past 25 I guess), Samsung was clearly the leader, she said, which seems to match what I have seen in the subway. When commuting, almost everyone in the train have their eyes fixed on their phone screen. Somewhat similar to what’s observed in Japan, but I found the phenomenon even more pronounced in Korea.

But what struck me the most is NOT the fact that Samsung was in such a leading position, but rather what kind of Smartphones Koreans are buying. I did not see any tablets anywhere, but I did see these huge, big-ass Samsung smartphones that apparently are referred to as Phablets in western media. These are really huge smartphones, think Galaxy Note 3 but even bigger stuff than that, too. Stuff you can barely hold in one hand.

The only good picture I could find, yet hardly representative of the larger models.

Some even had a leather back instead of the usual cheap plastic cover. They are thick and have a large battery, and some of them were even acting as wallets, with the top cover serving as a credit card and cash holder. As I was waiting in line for something, I asked one couple why they liked such big smartphones. They said it’s easier to type when you have a big screen… since the virtual keyboard has much more space then. I’m not sure whether that’s the key reason why people like these kind of formats, yet it’s an interesting trend, at the exact opposite of Japan’s in that regard, where small, pocketable iPhones and larger iPads rule.

The kingdom of the phablets!

Games have always been big for PCs in Korea, and it seems there’s a marked transition for Smartphone games as well. The MMORPG kind of games. There was one being constantly advertised in the subway and on TV, called Utopia, available across platforms of Smartphones. Not sure how popular it actually is, but in Japan the only game advertized in the same way is Puzzle and Dragons, the crappiest game ever with Candy Crush. Korea seems to be much more mature for gaming in that sense.

It’s not just Phones.

I had a quick look as well in Electronics stores, and for TV the trend in Korea is clearly the UHDTV, which I guess is the official name for the 4k standard. The picture look sharp indeed, but you’ll need a very big screen like the ones advertised in stores to be able to tell the difference. Something like a 50 or 60 inches screen will kind of work, but even then the before/after kind of comparison between HDTV display and UHDTV were not completely convincing – Sure, it’s better, but only visible if you compare one next to each other. The prices for such screens were at about… 10 000 USD, which is pricey but well, it’s just the beginning, and these are probably the more expensive displays being presented. Samsung had an interesting product as well, the curved UHDTV with a curved screen. I’m not sure which one makes more sense, flat or curved, in terms of image distortion and so on. But it’s clearly the first time I have seen a large, curved TV like that.

The recent curved UHDTV from Samsung.

Laptop PCs were still present in numbers, and the trend in Korea seems to be the large screen equipped, light laptop. They were advertising a laptop less than 1 kg (980 g) on TV. And white seemed to be a very popular color as well. I did not really see Macs out there but I’m sure they are available in special stores.

Japanese manufacturers were notoriously absent from these stores, except for the Camera section where Sony and Canon were widely represented.

On Mobile phones, and even on the Android ones, Google is not the search engine by default in Korea. They actually use Naver, and Google’s share in that market is actually ridiculous, while slightly better on Mobile phones.

I don’t know enough about the subject to discuss it in length, but it seems that Naver is very popular for korean language content, and that it features a rich question-answers kind of user-created content (much like Yahoo Answers) which is apparently appealing for many folks in Korea.

As you can see, the Korean mobile phone market is clearly like nothing out there, yet some it is the home of major players in the phone world – some of the trends observed in Korea may make it to other markets as well.

Worth visiting ?

Yeah, certainly. If you visit Asia Japan or China may be higher in your priority list, but Korea is a really good place as well to get a feel for what the top of Asia’s like. I was back to being completely illiterate for a couple of days, since the korean writing system has nothing to do with Chinese or Japanese, and most people do not speak anything else but Korean. But it’s ok, you use your hands when everything else fails. I’m attaching a few pictures of the trip below, in case you wonder what Seoul may look like.

Let me know in the comments if you have any question. I’ll try to answer.

Various posters for local shows. Korean culture is very lively, as you may have heard.
Various posters for local shows. Korean culture is very lively, as you may have heard.
A traditional Korean house situated in the Hanok Village.
A traditional Korean house situated in the Hanok Village.
The Grand Palace seen from the heights of the Hanok Village.
The entrance to the Big Palace. It’s pretty massive as well.
Lotte’s headquarters (or part of it). One of Korean industry giants.
Natural Beauty ? Probably not. Korean girls go for esthetic surgery a LOT. This is an ad for such services.
Gangnam has tons of weird and tall buildings.

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ekianjosehs33Steven CraftAndrew Finkenbinderbloodfalco Recent comment authors
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Really nice bro, I wonder if you can find retro video game arcade there.

What about the net-cafe itself? The one that all Korean people play Starcraft nonstop.

Andrew Finkenbinder

I taught English in Korea into 2010, and the thing that got me the most was just how attached users in South Korea were to their devices even compared to the most ardent mobile enthusiasts in the west. AND that was four years ago….

Steven Craft

I was in Seoul last year for business and stayed a week for pleasure afterwards. I totally got the same views as you, nearly every single person on subway trains was looking at a huge phone (think I saw one in a hundred iPhones). And when I say everyone, I mean the very much older generation (70+) had their phones out too, watching a crazy video and sharing it with their friend sitting next to them. Having really fast internet everywhere (including on the subway) facilitates true always connected behaviour, with lots of people watching streaming TV programs. Something I… Read more »


Pretty interesting, thanks for sharing this ekianjo…

Would it be too much to ask you for the source (and period) for the first and last pie chart?

Thanks again;