Join 3,557 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Cost of Monoculture
February 1, 2007 8:06 PM   Subscribe

In Korea, you use Windows and IE, or you're out of luck. MeFi's own Gen Kanai writes about the Microsoft lock-in in South Korea. It is also a monoculture in other ways, of course, but in a country of 48 million where internet usage has risen from 9 million in 1999 to 35 million today, that leads the world in broadband penetration, some lessons for the rest of the world about the dangers of monopoly might be learned.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken (30 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sounds disastrous, but am I missing something?
If the Korean Army or Kwangju city cannot do any encrypted communications because their operating system of choice does not work with Active X controls, I'm not sure if this is hype or confusion.
The law just requires 128-bit encryption, right? I can see how the banks etc. would get caught in the trap of requiring the ActiveX control, but surely there's nothing that forces the Army etc. to use the ActiveX control in their internal "encrypted communications" when 128-bit encryption is available in, say, Apache and Firefox. Surely it's just hype?

How about you, stav, you using Firefox?
posted by Jimbob at 8:20 PM on February 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, it does help when you have a completely homogeneous collectivist culture to inoculate with the thinking that there is only one (right) way to do things. (Shitty as it may be, it is great for market share in certain corners.) This is democracy my man. Pure unadulterated monolitic democracy.
posted by isopraxis at 8:23 PM on February 1, 2007


It's not a monopoly, it's synergistic innovation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:30 PM on February 1, 2007


I keep hearing about this, and it seems odd to me. Yes, ActiveX is proprietary, but SEED itself is apparently an IETF standard, and the C source for a baseline implementation is available. Surely someone could implement this as a Java plugin, as a Firefox extension or patch, or in any number of open, cross-platform environments. This would probably require a little work on the part of sites expecting users to have the ActiveX control, but it's not as though the entire protocol would need to be scrapped. What am I missing?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 8:32 PM on February 1, 2007


TELL me about it, good god. Nurri and I have enough Korean contacts with whom we are completely unable to exchange documents that she's thought about getting a cheap-o Windows box just to handle the message traffic.

The thought of her not being able to take advantage of some opportunity to show her work or something because not merely a given institution but the entire culture it's embedded in is married to this tripe-awful technology makes me grind my teeth at night. Fortunately, now there's Boot Camp, so we don't have to go that route.

Though such is my loathing of Windows and everything that treats of it that the thought of installing it on a Mac, even temporarily, is detrimental to my wellbeing.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:45 PM on February 1, 2007


Hi Gen!
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:46 PM on February 1, 2007


well I'm pulling my donation from "Save Darfur" because this is much much worse.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:47 PM on February 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Do they have GSM in Korea or is the US government enforced Qualcomm monopoly lock the Koreans into that backward technology too?
posted by three blind mice at 8:48 PM on February 1, 2007


How about you, stav, you using Firefox?

Yep (at least at home), but I don't use many Korean-language sites, and the ones I do use, I don't have to authenticate to do anything. My wife, though, is locked into using IE for all of our banking, interactions with the government and tax department and healthcare providers (and so on and on), shopping (95% of what we buy, including our organic produce, we buy online, because if Korea's gotten anything right online, it's shopping), and on down the line.

Which, because of the bewildering array of ActiveX controls that are required by almost all of these sites for login and authentication and whatever else, means that I have to flatten and reinstall the OS on her laptop, which goes kablooie with clockwork regularity, while the desktop I usually use soldiers on faultlessly.

well I'm pulling my donation from "Save Darfur" because this is much much worse.

What an odd thing to say. I know you were trying for 'humour', but I'd suggest you reconsider that strategy. Nobody, least of all me, is suggesting that this is a TERRIBLE TRAGEDY, but it is interesting to me because I am a geek and I live in Korea, and I thought it might be interesting to others as well.

Do they have GSM in Korea or is the US government enforced Qualcomm monopoly lock the Koreans into that backward technology too?

I don't own a cellphone, but I can tell you that the 3G+ cell technology here is pretty mindblowing. I know lots of people with the latest gear watching DMB tv on their phones. I think the latest figures were that there are actually more phones than people here (but I can't find a citation for it at the moment, so grain of salt).
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:58 PM on February 1, 2007


The total absence of ways to infer innocence from Reid's methods show him for what he is--the spiritual decendant of Cotton Mather and his witchcraft trials. He has no sense of investigating to find truth. All he can find is guilt. And since that is all he can find, that is what he will find.
posted by hexatron at 9:07 PM on February 1, 2007


How'd dat hoppen? Sorry.
posted by hexatron at 9:08 PM on February 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Speaking of odd things to say!
posted by Wolof at 9:10 PM on February 1, 2007


The author is confusing monoculture with technical standardisation and the effect of being first to market with a new standard.

The US still uses NTSC for TV.

The UK still has those ridiculous monster plugs with the built-in fuse for their 220VAC residential service.

And South Korea has an outdated encryption protocol that relies on IE.

The momentum of being first makes it harder to adopt later improvements.

Monoculture has nothing to do with it.
posted by three blind mice at 9:21 PM on February 1, 2007


Well, three blind mice, reading this might lead you to understand why I think you're overstating the case. First in best dressed, certainly, but that's only part of the story.

Me, I think the fact that Korea is a monoculture in the most literal (that is, cultural) sense does lead to marginalizing of edge cases in other spheres of life.

Gen's use of the word 'monoculture' here is apt, but perhaps as much or more in a metaphorical sense as a literal one -- what does 'culture' mean when we're talking about browsers and operating systems, anyway?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:32 PM on February 1, 2007


Stav, you should know from the moment I saw Gen's blog post, I thought of you as one of the lone Win/IE holdouts of the mefi old guard and said to myself "Aha! That's why stavros still uses freaking IE on Windows!"
posted by mathowie at 10:16 PM on February 1, 2007


Heh, yeah. Only at work, though, these days, where it's (predictably) required to run our corporate webmail client.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:23 PM on February 1, 2007


The Apple shops in Taiwan always looked sad and forsaken. But I know there were LUGs around...
posted by jiawen at 11:00 PM on February 1, 2007


stavros : I think the latest figures were that there are actually more phones than people here (but I can't find a citation for it at the moment, so grain of salt).

I have no figures to back this up, but if memory serves, Japan blew by the 100%+ cellphone adoption rate a couple of years ago. I assumed that South Korea as a leading provider of the high end phones on the market was a similar situation.

But I had no idea that Windows had the kind of penetration that is described here.

Honestly, it never occurred to me that a product this bad would be something that everyone would flock to. Monoculture or no, South Korea is obviously a bastion of really clever people. Technical people, that can build phones that make the rest of the world weep in anticipation of their release. This is not a culture that I would have ever expected to embrace something as deeply screwed up as Windows.

That said, XP did it's job well. It was flawed in so many ways, but compared to previous itinerations, it was a work of art.

Vista on the other hand is something else. Something... Bad.

And here is where I predict that S. Korea will break the chains (as it where) of their connection to this flawed system. Vista will benefit no one. And there are alternatives aplenty . As soon as it comes out that Vista will down-sample your video if you don't have the correct cable, I predict that many will flock away from it.

Yeah. I am so often wrong about this sort of thing, but here, I really hope I'm right.
posted by quin at 11:54 PM on February 1, 2007


Here's the thing that I did not make clear enough in the article.

When a Korean user makes an encrypted transaction on the web in Korea, they need BOTH the SEED cipher as well as a certificate generated by a Korean certificate authority that has inside each Korean's unique ID (sort of like a Soc. Sec. # that Americans have althouth Soc. Sec. #s are also given to resident aliens, which on the Korean side is not done. E.g. U.S. Forces Korea soldiers cannot bank online.) So both the encryption cipher as well as the citizen ID are wrapped up in the Active X control. Korean users "hit F7" on their Windows keyboards in order to invoke this "package" to allow them to place a secure transaction with a bank, or an ecommerce site, or to buy widgets for their Cyworld minihompy.

So in theory, the encryption mechanism (SEED cipher) and the unique identifier (certificate ID) are separate, but in practice they are bound together in an Active X control that is distributed by the various Korean certificate authorities, thus ensuring a defacto monopoly for Windows and IE.

JimBob: The law just requires 128-bit encryption, right?


As I explained above, it's not that simple in practice.

IshmaelGraves: Surely someone could implement this as a Java plugin, as a Firefox extension or patch, or in any number of open, cross-platform environments.

Yes, SEED could be implemented in Firefox, but adding ciphers is non-trivial as you might imagine due to the impact on the codebase as well as the testing required. The problem is that that would only get us half-way to the solution.

Even if SEED support was added to Firefox, the Korean certificate authorities would need to start distributing cross-platform certificates, which they don't do today. Korean websites (every website that is struggling with the Vista and IE7 changes to Active X controls) would need to re-implement this new, non-Active X-based system (whatever it may be.) Korean Internet users (35 million of them) would need to learn a "new" process vs. what they know today.

When I said it was herculean, I really meant it.

(Someone needs to make an Internet video about how convoluted this is because explaining it with words is really tough.)
posted by gen at 12:53 AM on February 2, 2007


quin: And here is where I predict that S. Korea will break the chains (as it where) of their connection to this flawed system. Vista will benefit no one.
...
Yeah. I am so often wrong about this sort of thing, but here, I really hope I'm right.


quin, from the bottom of my heart I wish you were right, but I have to tell you that all of the executives I spoke to in Korea (I spoke to the top web search services, the top music download services, the top online game companies) were only focused on getting Vista/IE 7 support for their sites. There is no viable alternative for Microsoft in South Korea at this time.

ctrl-alt-delete
posted by gen at 1:03 AM on February 2, 2007


It's like that in Israel too, I'm sorry to say.

I never had to use my IE Tab extension much until I moved here, where every gov and other major site doesn't work at all under FF.

And in my job, its not much fine that every client based here is using IIS.
posted by FeldBum at 1:17 AM on February 2, 2007


Those from outside Korea might have an impression that Korea is “linux friendly”.

Well, STWC, this is just another linux friendly site that attributes every evil in the world to Windows.

In this regard, open source is the biggest monoculture on the planet.
posted by three blind mice at 3:28 AM on February 2, 2007


*shrugs*

If by 'this' you mean the site I linked to upthread, well I don't know how to respond. There are almost no resources in English that give anything like an individual's version of the Story So Far; the fact that that one actually exists (and is reasonably well-written) surprises me. I assumed that you, like most, were clever enough to be able to be able to sense the bias and adjust your read on the tale accordingly. This is what one must do on the internet. But perhaps I was overly optimistic.

In this regard, open source is the biggest monoculture on the planet.

I'm not even sure what that means. Regardless, for my part, I'm far from an open source proselytizer. Don't really care much either way. But the freaking ActiveX plugin swarm that tries to crawl up my butt every time I use almost any website here in Korea does annoy me.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:17 AM on February 2, 2007


I'm not a techie, so I may be reading the explanations wrong, but I don't buy the monoculture application 100%.

I think to understand how Microsoft has a lock on the country, the traditional office/business culture of Korea with the tradition of (sometimes badly applied) ambitions of the government has a larger role to play.

Doing big business with "the clients from America" is almost as cliched as doing big business "with the clients from Japan" motif that I've seen in America. Combine that with the high speed recovery after the war (a complicated history and sociological topic in and of itself) and its modern day manifestation of trying to prove themselves to be a viable country in the modern business world (again a whole other topic in and of itself especially after the embarassing stumble of the IMF times), I can see how a large company like Microsoft that appears to have its fingers in everything when it comes to business technology would be implemented heavily by an office culture that's still influenced by the idea of focusing narrowmindedly, even to an impractical point, on getting ahead and achieving the goal.

It seems more like a combination of influences rather than the the broad title of "monoculture." It might be an influencer, yes, but the whole Korean identity/ Dangun mythology/unity as one group of people/what have you doesn't really seem to me as something that would be helping Microsoft so much. If anything, it should hurt them. Back in the 90s there was a big hubbub about how a Korean word processing program was being sued or blocked from being used by Microsoft because of some unfair advantage and business practices Microsoft had. At one point, some people began to see it threat to national identity and Microsoft was seen as infringing on the country's sovereignty. Someone correct me if I'm remembering this incident incorrectly.

As a side note, when it comes to Korean sites, I'm more annoyed with Flash ads that don't go away and the need to sign up with a National I.D. number to do anything.
posted by kkokkodalk at 7:10 AM on February 2, 2007


mathowie : "Stav, you should know from the moment I saw Gen's blog post, I thought of you as one of the lone Win/IE holdouts of the mefi old guard and said to myself 'Aha! That's why stavros still uses freaking IE on Windows!'"

Slightly off-topic, but is there anywhere where the Firefox/IE/Safari/Konqueror/Whatever breakdown for MeFi is posted?
posted by Bugbread at 7:34 AM on February 2, 2007


gen : There is no viable alternative for Microsoft in South Korea at this time.

That's astonishing. And very depressing.

Thanks for the additional info though.
posted by quin at 9:21 AM on February 2, 2007


kkokkodalk and threeblindmice are on the mark. It has little to do with the "completely homogeneous collectivist culture" which Big Brother can "inoculate" (sic ) with a certain kind of thinking. Tradition is strong there, and in many Asian countries, it's traditional not to want to stick out. When I lived in Hong Kong, salesmen used to say "buy this, it's very popular." Of course, I wanted to know if it would suit my own needs; I wasn't interested in what they sold the most of. I remember a wealthy man there who bought three Mercedes-Benzes, because that was the car that wealthy people bought, and if you had more money, you bought more of them. Variety or individuality wasn't the issue.

Microsoft is the most visible system, and Koreans would need a very good reason to defy that momentum.
posted by QuietDesperation at 9:29 AM on February 2, 2007


silly koreans.
posted by quonsar at 10:21 AM on February 2, 2007


Still doesn't explain the zerg rushes though, kekekekeke.

But yeah, the idea of an entire country looking at Vista with... I don't even know what to call it, but the idea of needing to be compliant with it just because that's the way it needs to be is... very depressing.
posted by Talanvor at 11:24 AM on February 2, 2007


QuietDesperation : "It has little to do with the 'completely homogeneous collectivist culture' which Big Brother can 'inoculate' (sic ) with a certain kind of thinking. Tradition is strong there, and in many Asian countries, it's traditional not to want to stick out."

Er, how is "it's traditional not to want to stick out" not the same as "homogenous culture"?
posted by Bugbread at 1:24 PM on February 2, 2007


« Older The Reid Technique...  |  Hair?... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments