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That was then and this is now

04 July 2012

Many years ago – a decade nearly – I remember going to a lunch in an apartment overlooking the eastern walkway of Circular Quay. The apartment had a view of the Bridge, the Overseas Passenger Terminal and Harbour and had been rented by one of the large South Korean conglomerate companies as part of a PR campaign to ‘wow’ lifestyle editors, their colleagues and friends with the home of the future. 

Having installed Internet-connected electronic products from its considerable range, including an intelligent refrigerator, TV, microwave, washing machine, and home media system, the organisation’s PR executive was then tasked with targeting interior and lifestyle magazine and section editors, inviting them to live in the apartment and entertain, making use of the home of the future’s integrated products. 

No doubt the idea was to lure those who experienced it into writing about it, or, at the very least, talking about it with their friends and so influence the sale of its Smart Products in the retail outlets.

The lunch was fantastic: the intelligent fridge – impressive and very large. But back then (and even to some extent now) our ability to exploit to capacity those Internet integrated products just didn’t exist. 

(Roll on National Broadband.)

In fact, when we ran out of wine and were ‘forced’ to get more, instead of the Smart fridge being able to send a message to the local bottle shop and a delivery being made minutes later, we had to look up the yellow pages, ring the bottle shop using a land line and then send out one of the party to pick it up.

It’s an anecdote that says something about how much a group of 15 can drink at lunch, and illustrates how we’ve developed since then technologically. Smart products are becoming more available in the Australian marketplace as our capability to use them grows and more of us are buying them. But before we get too carried away with how clever our homes can be, think about the jump South Korea already has on us. 

In a recent interview with senior business figure and entrepreneur Wendy Simpson, where she spoke about her experience in the telecommunications industry through the 1990s and early 2000s, she touched on the reasons for South Korea’s technological advances. 

English is the language of the Internet, and if it’s not your language it makes the Internet impenetrable… unless you think outside the box, and work outside the boundaries placed on you by the dominant culture. Singapore and South Korea were some of the most advanced communities in the world when it came to the Internet, technology, telecommunications and integration, says Wendy. South Korea had developed its own language and Internet alongside its advanced technology manufacturing industry: think LG, Samsung, etc. The closed, fast moving community was nimble, adaptive and way ahead of anyone else, in Wendy’s experience. 

So far advanced she thought it would be good for senior Australian telecommunication industry heads to take a look at what the South Koreans were doing, including a project called Samsung Tower Palace where more than 6000 residents lived in a totally integrated online community. The answer from senior business heads to her invitation was, we don’t need that sort of stuff and what can we learn from South Korea. (Shortsighted, but in context not unexpected: no one really understood the potential of telecommunications, computing and Smart products at that stage.)

According to one early media report, which explained how the Samsung residential complex worked: Card keys were issued to residents for all entrances and elevators and residences were accessed by either a key code or fingerprint id. (Building security in the ‘state of the art’ media organisation in which I worked at the time was a laminated photograph id pass and a book we signed if we happened to enter and leave via the main entrance. There were other entrances to the building.) 

The fully automated Samsung Towers allowed residents to pre-set lighting, curtains, home networks, washing machines, fridges, and other digital appliances to perform certain actions at a defined time or when a mode was activated from the control panels. The entire home could be controlled through the owner’s mobile phone.

To be fair, in articles written as recently as 2004, you can find evidence of consumers, consumer groups and industries in other countries questioning the practicality of products such as Internet-enabled refrigerators, not to mention their complexity. 

But there’s no denying the rapid effect the Internet has had on us all since then and you’d be hard pressed to think in the same way you did before it was around. 

Wendy believes the shift will be the same when it comes to her radically simple idea to advance and engage more women entrepreneurs in the business world through Springboard, the venture catalyst group she has brought to Australia.

“In time, people are going to say what was it like when women entrepreneurs weren’t here and working? And the answer will be, ‘Oh, come on. They’ve always been here. We’ve always done things this way.’ 

“But we haven’t.

“I think we are at the cusp again of developing a whole new way of doing business and we have to be there in this country to take advantage of that. We can’t sit back and be left behind.”