Next in my series on international web apps is Korea. I have Chang W. Kim, who runs a
blog called Web 2.0 Asia, to thank for providing
me with all the info. 

Korea is in many ways ahead of the curve in terms of the Internet. It has the highest
household penetration of broadband internet in the world and some highly innovative Web
applications (e.g. the social network Cyworld).

Bigcos and Search

Chang says that in Korea a lot of web 2.0 initiatives are done by Internet bigcos – Naver, Daum, Nate.com (operated by SK Communications, which also owns
Cyworld), Yahoo Korea, etc. However he says Google
Korea isn’t such a big threat in this market and it is outperformed by local search
company Naver. 

In a post on his blog, Change described the
reasons why:

“I think the success of Naver search has been largely helped by the fact that Korea is
a very homogeneous society where people often have very common and shared interests. I
mean, every society has its memes and zeitgeist, but I think Korea is a little more
special. 48+ million people packed in a small country that’s equipped with dead efficient
broadband and mobile networks. That’s an interesting (and even a bit dangerous)
combination.”

Chang said that the Korean bigcos all seem to be providing generic Web/media 2.0
service offerings – blogs, photo management tools, online video sites (a la Youtube),
social networking,  RSS aggregators, etc. Very similar to what’s popular in the
Western world.

Cyworld rules!

But Chang reckons of all the bigco service offerings, the most impressive is
definitely Cyworld. It provides the same social networking values as Myspace, but it did
so 5 years before. Cyworld had been criticized as a “closed service” in the past, but now
they are opening up. Chang has written about Cyworld’s new initiatives, which are little
known outside of Korea, on his blog [ref 1 and
2]. 

Some of the best features are:

  • Mini hompy – buddy relationships
    encompassing a photo gallery, message board, guestbook, and personal bulletin board.
  • The Paper – CyWorld’s blog and content syndication service.
  • Cyworld Town – a minihompy-based service targeted for SOHOs and other e-commerce
    shops.
  • lots of social networking features – e.g. Club, Mini Ring, TeamPlay

In terms of stats, Cyworld is totally dominant. According to Wikipedia:

“…as much as 90 percent of South Koreans in their 20s[1]
and 25 percent of the total population of South Korea[2] are
registered users of Cyworld, and as of September 2005, daily unique visitors are about 20
million.”

Cyworld also recently opened for business in the US – and promptly got a harsh
review
from Techcrunch’s Marshall Kirkpatrick. Chang commented over on his blog that he thinks
Cyworld US may not take off, but that the parent company has deep pockets and is putting
in a lot of effort for version 2 of the US product – codenamed C2. It does seem to me
that Cyworld is a culturally unique product, which may prevent it from succeeding in the
US (and hence the UK, Aussie, etc) market. 

But from what I understand of
it, Cyworld is extremely innovative and (unlike Marshall) I actually do think avatars
will have a big part to play in future social networks in the West. Marshall was very
dismissive of avatars in his TC review. He said in a comment: “I can’t speak for
anyone in South Korea, but I think these avatars are silly. I think the whole thing is
massively nuts.” Nice one Marshall.

Korean Startups

Korea has a great list of startups and some of them are making a name for themselves
overseas – e.g. OhMyNews and ThinkFree.

  • Enbee is a an end-to-end photo management service
    that’s similar to HP’s Snapfish.
  • Tattertools is the leading blog tool of
    Korea. They recently launched a hosted blogging service (like Typepad) called Tistory as well.
  • Video sharing: Pandora TV (recently announced a
    $6M investment by Sillicon Valley investors), 
  • Beedeo.com (founded by the original founder of
    Cyworld, but hasn’t yet taken off in Korea)
  • Revu by Opinity is an Identity 2.0 (online reputation)
    service.
  • Thinkfree is a leading Web
    Office service (has a US office) – n.b. I interviewed ThinkFree CEO TJ Kang for ZDNet (part 1 and part 2).
  • Ohmynews.com is a well-known Citizen
    journalism site
  • Wingbus provides a travel booking service
    along with travel-related blogs, syndicated from various sources.
  • Han RSS is the #1 RSS reader in Korea, in terms
    of market share and features.
  • Cyworld open
    market
    is a “social commerce” site where people create blogs with shopping APIs (here is Chang’s post about it)

Chang also said there are many online gaming services – “Korea is a hotbed of
online games companies.” He thinks that online games (MMORPGs) might be the best example
there of a) software as a service and b) online money-making business models. 

If there is a possible market opportunity, Chang thinks it’s a Facebook-like college
social networking site. But then, everyone uses Cyworld anyway!

Finally, if you want to keep up with the Web industry in Korea – as well as subscribing to Chang’s blog, also check out my friend Taewoo Danny Kim’s blog and Channy Yun’s KoreaCrunch. They’re all in english and well worth tracking.