7 Insights from my trip to Korea

At the end of each year I usually reflect on the places I’ve been, and the people I’ve met. Last year, one of my memorable trips was a visit to Seoul, Korea, in February of 2015. In this article, I’d like to discuss some of the key differences I noticed between California and Korea. Because of my professional interests, it turns out many of these observances are related to mobile technology.

Google is NOT #1 search engine

Living in the U.S. or Europe, you might never have heard of a company called “Naver”. However, Naver is in fact the #1 search engine in Korea, and according to some sources may account for nearly a 50% market share (Source), exceeding Google’s market share even in the States. Why? It seems South Korean users prefer a service that offers more than Search. Looking at the south Korean search engines, it is obvious that they prefer a much busier page, with advertising and trending search results geared specifically toward the South Korean market.

“Naver also gives a comprehensive and interactive search experience by generating search results from each service category in one page. This includes ads, news articles, report blogs, knowledge searches and a Naver e-commerce comparator”, states Mandy Shin of L’atelier.net (Source).

Battery life is crucial

During my stay in Seoul, I travelled on several occasions using the public tube (their transit rail system). The tube covers the whole city of Seoul, with nearly 600 stations (the official count is 678, according to wikipedia, but over 80 of these are joint stations covering multiple lines). It can take a couple of hours to travel one line, end to end. And many people do spend a significant portion of their day travelling this sprawling transit system. Despite the fact that transportation is nearly entirely underground, you will rarely lose your cellular signal. This means that transit time is often internet time as well. While in transit, nearly everyone is on their mobile devices, checking email, social media, or watching clips/movies. With the time spent on transit, ever larger device screens, and more resource hungry apps and games, battery life is one of the top concerns when purchasing a mobile device in Seoul.

Apple and Samsung are dominating

South Korea is Samsung’s home turf, and it is no surprise then that it holds the largest market share. However, Apple is giving the Korean giant a run for it’s money, even on their home turf. Apple’s market share has hit double digits this year, and it’s share hit a record 33% in November of 2014, with the release of the iPhone 6 and 6S, beating handily South Korea’s other large player, LG. In terms of device count, Samsung and LG still edge out the competition overall, but it’s clear from talking to Seoul residents, and simple observation, that Apple and Samsung are considered the top dogs, and remain “hip”. LG, unfortunately, is faltering, and is considered a more “old-school” option.

Device Fragmentation not as much of an issue

Because of Samsung’s continued home turf dominance, increasing competition from Apple, and a fairly strong remaining market share for LG, there is little room for other vendors in South Korea. In May of 2015, Samsung’s share held at 59%, Apple tripling it’s overall share to 14%, and LG falling from 29% to 22%. This means that a device lab in Seoul could consist of the latest devices from these three manufacturers and reasonably cover approximately 95% of the market. While this is still a fairly large number of devices, it pales drastically in comparison to the worldwide count.

Screens are larger

South Korea loves large-screened mobile devices, far more than even American and European markets. I observed this first-hand in Seoul’s tube system, but it is statistically documented as well. According to statistics from DeviceAtlas, over 45% of users in South Korea have a device with a screen size of 5 inches and up. This nearly doubles the “phablet” market share worldwide (approximately 24%), and as seen below, sticks out like the inevitable sore thumb suffered by the users of these large devices, when compared with other nations.

China next expansion targets for successful apps

South Korea, and Seoul have a very high population density, but because of the small size of the country, remains a somewhat small market. With a population of approximately fifty million, with over 10 million people living in Seoul, it is logical that economic growth has to be sought outside of the country. Successful apps and devices need to expand internationally. One of the most common target markets discussed was China, in particular targeting large cities like Shanghai as a springboard. A strong reason for this seems to be relative cultural similarities to the population in Seoul, as well as its geographical proximity.

Korean Beer is weak

A final observation was noted, having little to do with mobile technology…but being german, I have to comment on the beer. Common beer brands, such as “Hite” or “Cass”, are very weak compared to American and European counterparts, typically 3.9% alcohol on the low end, and 4.8% on the upper end. This might be one of the reasons that many Koreans order a shot of “Soju” along with it. Soju is Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage, which is usually made from rice, wheat or barley.

These are some of my observations, having spent 4 days in Seoul. Keep in mind that I was only in Seoul and my interaction with locals, taken this short time frame into account was limited. Still, I’m curious to hear if your experience was similar or different than mine.

Innovating @Snap. Founded Testmunk. German. YC alum

Innovating @Snap. Founded Testmunk. German. YC alum