KOREA: Seoul wrap, Pt II
Just got back from Korea, after two weeks spent with the country's largest consumer electronics companies - sorry, Daewoo - and it's time to take stock of what we've learned, and what to expect for next year.
First, and most important, point is that both LG and Samsung are terribly terribly paranoid about what the other is doing. One made us sign a non-disclosure agreement before we got pictures of its new products - which, at the time of writing, are yet to materialise, although to be fair they may be sitting on my desk back in the office. The other got very jumpy about at least one statement it made, and asked me to 'clear up the misunderstanding'.
Second, both companies are planning new TV products that should put them at the forefront of the market in technological terms next year, as well as at the top of the sales rankings (in Samsung's case), and increasing market share (LG).
New sets will have a stack of new technologies, including 200Hz working (240Hz in the case of NTSC sets), LED backlighting for better contrast and, in Samsung's case, edge-lighting. This is designed to make LCD screens thin enough to take the fight to those who think OLED is the only way to get TVs even slimmer. Below is Samsung's 7mm-thick edge-lit LCD display panel.
They'll also look even better than ever - we had a fascinating morning seeing the new LG designs with the company's Patrick Shim. Patrick combines an serious enthusiasm for making the TVs stand out through good design with a lilting Irish accent, which sounds unusual coming from a Korean guy.
And he has a no-nonsense approach to design, seen in a tendency to say things like "and this transparent panel lets the TV blend with its background - it's a kind of giggly idea from us", and "the curved edge makes you look at it and say 'Oh that's bloody slim, so it is' ".
We also learned that both companies are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously: LG says its new designs, and improved Intelligent Sensor technology, which reduces brightness according to room lighting levels, can deliver serious power savings, while Samsung claims its 55in TVs for 2009 will only consume as much power as this year's 32in models.
Both companies are also unconvinced by OLED (organic LED) technology as a commercial goer at this point, though both are working on larger screen versions: LG reckons it'll be several years before the technology is really viable even for 'early adopters', while Samsung thinks it could be even further away than that.
LG says it has a 30in OLED on the stocks; the official view from Samsung is only that it has one 'larger than 32in', though one of its showrooms was highlighting, if not actually showing, a 40in. Even in a technology deemed not yet ready for the public, the arms race continues.
Other things we have learned? The springs and shocks on the Samsung corporate bus were less impressive than those on LG's (above) - either that or the road down to Suwon is a lot bumpier than that up to Paju. So apologies for any typing mistakes in last week's blogs, as most of them were bashed out on the bus between factories, and it was seriously 'thump and jump'.
Korea has fewer Japanese cars on its roads than almost any country I have visited: I saw more BMWs and Mercs in the grinding Seoul traffic than I saw Nissans or Hondas, showing that the Koreans really do support their local industry.
However, the personal transport of Korean ladies of a certain age who lunch seems to vary from Porsche Cayenne to Bentley Continental, judging from those arriving and departing from the hotel where Samsung installed us for the second week.
Stand there for ten minutes and you could spot more Maybachs and big Bentleys than you'd see in a year in Britain, and there was even one Rolls-Royce Phantom gliding through the expensive imported metal jostling for the valet parking guys.
No-one paid it any particular notice.
There are lots of very cool Hyundais and Kias we never get to see here in the UK, though I'm not sure the Grandeur ("pronounced 'Grainger' ", as one LG exec told my fellow traveller, Gadget Show presenter Jon Bentley, before admitting he drove one) or the Chairman would be a hit in Europe. However, you can actually order the former from Hyundai UK if you're prepared to wait while it's made and shipped to you.
On the downside, the companies also make some of the saddest Euro-clones I have seen for ages: this is the Kia Opirus, a really rather tragic Merc-alike favoured by some Korean grandees,
while there are also several models on Korean roads paying homage - to put it politely - to Chris Bangle's current BMW portfolio. Sad car-spotters should check out the back end of this Grainger - sorry Grandeur - to see what I mean.
And there are a lot of Samsung cars about, too: the company was started in 1994, and started selling cars in 1998 just before a financial crisis. In 2000 it was saved by Renault, so it's not surprising most of the current models bear a close resemblance to current or recent Nissan/Renault models.
If you buy a Renault Koleos, the French company's first crossover 4WD model, it will have been built by Renault Samsung Motors at its plant in South Korea's second city, Busan.
But if Korea is short of Japanese cars, it's not short of Japanese people: the current weakness of the Won against the Yen is causing an invasion of shoppers from Japan, and doing some Christmas present buying in Seoul's huge Coex Mall last weekend I heard a lot of Japanese being spoken in the shops.
The trip up to Paju, near the border with North Korea, was a strangely unnerving experience: I guess the likes of Team America and P J O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell have given us all a slightly comical view of the RSK's northern neighbours, or Norks as I heard them described. But it didn't feel too comical that close to the border.
However, aside from some slightly nervous humour and very serious defences, I get the impression that reunification, or at least a sensible working relationship, is desirable for many in the South.
One senior executive said to me "We have to learn lessons from German reunification", and Korail, the country's railway company, has a very optimistic view of the future.
It already has its KTX high speed trains, capable of 300kph (getting on for 200mph), and the huge poster outside Seoul station looks forward to a time when the railways will link up through to Siberia, and then on to the rail networks to Europe. Korail talks about establishing a new 'Iron Silk Road'.
Seoul to London by train? Don't rule it out - anything is possible. I went to Korea for the first time not really knowing what to expect, but what I've seen went way beyond what I'd imagined.
And I'm not just talking about the forthcoming LG and Samsung products...