Korean Startup Works Hard to Pocket Linux

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (04/17/2000) - It's a Sunday morning and while most of Seoul rests, Jae-Heon Lee, president and chief executive officer of Gmate Co. Ltd., gets into his car and makes the 30 minute drive to Pundang, a large commuter town to the south of the city where his company is based.

"We've been working every day for the last two years," says Lee, but the former semiconductor engineer employee isn't weary. The reaction to prototypes of the company's first product, a Linux-based PDA (personal digital assistant) with the offbeat name Yopy, at the CeBIT trade show in Hanover in February has him and rest of Gmate's 30 employees walking on air.

"It was amazing" said Lee. "We were preparing for 1,500 people to visit our stand but we estimate more than 6,000 people came." The stand visitors were drawn to the Yopy -- a hot little handheld computer running on the Linux operating system which offers a sharp 4-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) panel, access to the Internet and which can even double as an MP3 player.

The company is hoping to launch the Yopy in late June or early July and is targeting a price somewhere between US$400 and $600. Officially, it's aimed at business professionals in their twenties and thirties, but the Yopy looks like it may become a big hit among computer programmers and systems engineers because of its Linux base. Gmate officials at CeBIT discovered that the idea of being able to carry Linux in their pocket appeals to many users.

The buzz from the show was transformed into orders quickly. Lee said just a couple of days after he returned from Germany, an order from Hong Kong was received for 20,000 units -- something that made it easy for him to forget about jet-lag. Through a partnership with Samsung Electro-Mechanics Co. Ltd., which will also manufacture the Yopy, the device will be distributed worldwide.

Should the Yopy sell fast this summer, it will be a very welcome recompense for Gmate and all of its employees. Toiling daily to get the device out on time, many of the staff of the company have also been working weekends.

The company was formed in August of 1998 by Lee after he left a job as a designer of ASIC (application specific integrated circuit) chips at LG Semicon Co., one of Korea's largest chip makers.

Five other engineers also joined Gmate very early on attracted from other local industry heavyweights such as LG Electronics Inc., Hyundai Electronics Co. Ltd. and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST).

"I was thinking about wireless Internet devices when I started Gmate," said Lee. "Thinking about these got me onto thinking about personal digital assistants (PDAs) so we started on ASIC designs for PDAs."

Those designs eventually morphed into plans for the Yopy, the device which now keeps a team of engineers hunched over their workbenches to get the device out of the door on time. Lee doesn't let on whether he worries at all about missing the announced launch period and instead says confidently, "We have to, we will."

Gmate, in Pundang, South Korea, can be reached at +82-342-738-1230, or via the Web at http://www.gmate.co.kr/. Samsung Electro-Mechanics, in Suwon, is at http://www.sem.samsung.com/.

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