01 October 2009

Korea Cottons on to the Microsoft Monoculture

I've written several times about the extraordinary situation in South Korea - otherwise one of the most advanced technological nations - that maintains an almost total dependence on Microsoft's ActiveX technology for banking and government connections. Now it seems that the Koreans themselves are finally waking up to the disadvantages - and dangers - of that situation:

The bizarre coexistence of advanced hardware and an outdated user environment is a result of the country's overreliance on the technology of Microsoft, the U.S. software giant that owns the Korean computing experience like a fat kid does a cookie jar.

It is estimated that around 99 percent of Korean computers run on Microsoft's Windows operating system, and a similar rate of Internet users rely on the company's Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser to connect to cyberspace.

The article points out the obvious security issues with this approach:

This is a risky arrangement, since Active-X controls require full access to the Windows operating system and are often abused by cyber criminals who spread malicious programs to direct the browser to download files that compromise the user's control of the computer.

But it seems that the problem goes *much* deeper:

Even Microsoft seems ready to bail on Active-X, looking to phase out the program over security concerns and compatibility issues. However, in Korea, where most Web sites rely on Active-X to enable a variety of functions from online transactions to simple flash features, the program is abundant and critical as air.

This leads to awkwardness whenever Microsoft introduces a new product here. The release of Windows Vista caused massive disruption when Active-X used by banks and online shopping sites didn't function properly.

And the Korean Internet users sweated over Microsoft's initial plans to reduce its support for Active-X in IE8, the latest version of the company's Web browser. Although IE8 did end up backing Active-X, strengthened security features have made its use more complicated.

The reliance on Active-X has locked Korean computer users into a depressing cycle where they are prevented from venturing off to other operating systems and browsers, and stuck with an outdated technologies their creator can't wait to dispel.

That is, by instituting a monoculture, and becoming completely dependent not just on one manufacturer, but on one particular - and very unsatisfactory - technology used by that manufacturer, the Koreans find themselves trapped, left behind even by Microsoft, which wants to move on.

There could be no better demonstration of why mandating one proprietary technology in this way, rather than choosing an open standard with multiple implementations with the scope for future development, is folly.

Unfortunately, the article quoted above doesn't seem very optimistic on the chances of openness breaking out in South Korea any time soon, so it may well be that all its superb Internet infrastructure will go to waste as it remains locked into aging and increasingly obsolete technology on the software side. (Via Mozilla in Asia.)

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Unknown said...

Try, as a North American customer to visit a Korean website. You want to check out their "World Leading" electronics.

You can't. Even some of the large multinationals don't support modern browsers, which makes them look like 2-bit outfits.

So this is hurting Korea in more than one way. If they don't take action fairly quickly, it's going to negatively impact exports, which the Korean economy relies on.

Glyn Moody said...

let's hope they get the message soon...

guy said...

Hmm, another pet subject.

Portability (OS, database, toolkit, whatever) is a tough sell when constraining the deployment environment is a much easier concept to understand. It only seems makes sense to people *after* it's too late and the alternative is to completely discard what you have and start over, with all the pain and expense that that entails.

I never once regretted holding out for portability and it's saved several products from being ditched because it keeps the code base healthy and better able to accomodate change (e.g. maintaining unix ports of windows software actually made moving from XP to Vista easier).

But I've never been thanked for it either ;-)

It'll be interesting to see how Korea manages this problem.

Glyn Moody said...

@guy: yes, it's amazing how much it easier it is to take the wrong path...

(Jon)athan said...

i wonder how this is going to affect the iphone's arrival in korea since active-x is not supported by the iphone.

i want the phone but hesitant to spend 65,000krw per month on a data plan where i can't access any of my websites here.

Glyn Moody said...

@Jon(athan): that's a very good point...be interesting to see who wins...