Korea's Internet Is Mired in a Microsoft Monoculture

Kim Ki-cheon Kim Ki-cheon

Korea is at the cutting edge in technology, the state of the art in e-commerce, an early adopter of third-generation wired and wireless communication, broadband and personal media. Yet 99.9 percent of computer users are on Microsoft Windows. Mac users cannot bank or shop online, nor do these users have access to government websites. The same goes for users of Linux, the free user-generated OS, and those using Mozilla Firefox or Opera to browse the web.

The observation comes from an early 2007 entry on a Japanese blog, written shortly after the blogger's disappointing visit to Korea. It is not an unfair assessment nor is it borne of jealousy. Korea's Internet monoculture has been a subject of concern here for some time and remains an issue. In a recently published book, Kim Ki-chang, a professor at Koryo University, says that Korea's Internet environment is so unsound that nothing like it can be found in any other country in the world.

What is the problem? For one thing, accessing many Korean websites requires jumping through hoops not found anywhere else in the world. This may mean installing unfamiliar software programs, one to ensure secure access, another to protect against keystroke tracking, another for personal firewall protection, and on top of that, an antivirus program, all to be able to do some banking online. Nowhere else are websites so complicated and inconvenient.

It is also a uniquely Korean peculiarity that the programs needed for access to secure websites are compatible only with Microsoft Internet Explorer. Many are based on the ActiveX framework from Microsoft. And while there exist other technologies that perform the same function, none are in use in Korea. As a result, web browsers such as Firefox used by over 20 percent of users worldwide have no presence here.

The average computer user may not care whether it is ActiveX or something else that allows convenient and secure access. But that is misguided. In the event of worldwide Internet chaos, as was the case in January 2003 or during the DDoS attacks in July, Korea gets hit the hardest. Its online environment has become one where users habitually hit "yes" for every dialog box that pops up and install programs without a second thought.

Koreans are the easiest prey in the world for hackers intent on spreading computer viruses and using zombies.

Whenever Microsoft releases a new operating system, such as Windows Vista, or a new version of Explorer, only in Korea is there a fuss about previous versions not working. The country's closed and outdated computing environment is overly dependent on ActiveX.

The following is from a post earlier this month on a blog maintained by British freelance IT experts: "Korea's excellent Internet infrastructure may be useless as long as its software programs are adopting outdated technologies." Korea is like an oxcart going along a highway.

A few experts and industry players cannot change the situation. A determined effort on a national scale is needed.

By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Ki-cheon

englishnews@chosun.com / Oct. 27, 2009 13:32 KST