My SMS inbox resembles a SPAM folder more so than a collection of personal correspondence. A couple of years ago, it was jam packed with conversations with friends and colleagues. Now my network provider makes up the bulk of the messages — all automated ones. I’ve been using apps like Viber and Whatsapp for free calls and messaging between my friends. They’re faster, way more media-friendly and don’t cost anything — excluding minuscule data charges.
However, in Asia and some European countries like Spain, a new app called LINE is generating as much buzz as Vine has in the US, gathering itself over 200 million users. It offers everything that Viber and Whatsapp do, only better. It also features a much more robust revenue model and is challenging social networking sites like Facebook as users scramble for privacy.
To kick things off, let’s look at what Japan-based LINE offers upfront – a messaging service. Upon installing the app you go through the few-minutes-long setup process involving verifying your account via traditional SMS and adding friends. Nothing special. However aside from the normal trawling of your contacts, LINE enables you to add friends by searching for usernames, scanning a QR code (each LINE user has one) or by shaking phones beside each other.
Once your friend list is topped up, you can start chatting. You can have conversations one-on-one or in groups up to a hundred. In Asia where LINE has a high user base, behavior has somewhat replicated the take-up of the BBM network in the UK with large conversations of ‘friend of friends’ acting as a kind of unofficial private social network for let’s say, a school or housing district.
Add friends and start using LINE
Call quality is crystal clear over WiFi and quite good over a decent 3G network. Again, Asian countries were early implementers of 4G which could explain the prominence of voice calling in the app. As the US and EU rapidly catch up however, it’ll make for an awesome feature.
One of the most interesting features of LINE, and a central component of its business model, are the stickers. They serve as the app’s second set of emoji but are without a doubt the most vibrant and useful array of illustrations I’ve ever seen. It’s possible to have entire conversations using just stickers. There are thousands of them each worth a thousand words.
Stickers – Central to the conversation and LINE’s business
Readers familiar with Rage Comics (particularly popular on sites like Reddit) will know that the amateurish characters can be used in multiple ways to convey basic emotions and the Internet’s subcultures of in-your-face irony and ‘fail’. LINE has emulated this brilliantly and it’s without a doubt the main reason why the service is catching on with the Tumblr generation, for whom comic strips and illustrations mean as much as they did to newspaper readers in the 1950s — albeit in a totally different way.
All of this serves as the backbone to LINE. However they have made inroads into other markets – mainly to bulk up their revenue.
The app is built on vivid illustrations and emoticons, with a nod to the Japanese culture of Kawaii (cuteness). With this in mind, the developers have launched numerous games both within the app and as separate apps. Some are free, others must be purchased, but each one is styled on or heavily influenced by Kawaii.
Games and Currency
More Unique Features
Social networking is also mimicked in LINE but again the apps culture is ingrained here too. Each user has a timeline which combines into one stream among friends. Posts can be liked and commented upon. Sounds familiar? The unique option however is that when liking a comment, you can choose from different emotions to add more meaning to your ‘like’.
Other cool features include a PC and Mac desktop app which will replicate your device on your screen, the ability to send small voice clip messages and the ‘gifting’ function which allows the gifting of games and sticker packs to friends.
LINE is available on every mobile OS and a desktop version syncs with your phone
Initially, LINE appears to be nothing special. It’s certainly a cut above its competitors in terms of design but nothing awe-inspiring. Once you start using it though, you really notice just how much thought and effort has gone into making this app visually pleasing. When you first start with the app, it displays multiple illustrated characters encouraging you to add friends or make a post to your timeline. User profiles look neat yet have plenty of images including a profile picture and their timeline – where the app really encourages using emoticons, videos and pictures.
And while LINE offers a high degree of customisation and different themes, it’s not for the reason most of its competitors do. They use customisation as a novelty feature to attract users without any real attached value. By comparison, LINE focuses on the social aspect of customizing group conversation themes, profiles and so on.
LINE isn’t some college project that got uploaded to the Play Store. This is a service that has taken huge chunks out of markets in numerous countries across the globe and has a dedicated developer team behind it. And now, according to a recent report by Forbes they’re heading for the lucrative US market. They’re beginning to set up ‘Official Accounts’ for use by celebrities, to get traction amongst the population in a similar way Twitter did with its verified accounts back in 2009.
From another angle, the American Dollar has strengthened against the Japanese Yen in recent years and is showing no signs of slowing down. So the more LINE earns in USD, the more it’ll be worth back home in Japan. Now is a perfect time for LINE to hook as many US users as possible.
$58 million in revenues for the first quarter of 2013 ain’t chump change. And unlike Facebook and Twitter — the former having its notorious IPO go wrong due to uncertain revenue streams — LINE makes no bones about how they make their money: by selling games and stickers. 50% of that revenue in Q1 2013 came from social gaming amongst users and 30% from the sale of sticker packs.
“Six months ago [we were] knocking on people’s doors and saying ‘Do you want to put out an official sticker in LINE?’ And now it’s the other way around,” said Jeanie Han, LINE’s USA CEO, to the Forbes interviewer when talking about their corporate and celebrity partners.
It’s far too early to make any calls about the future of LINE. Facebook and Twitter still have their place — particularly when this generation is named the most narcissistic ever. We love our triumphs and failures being made public, even if we say otherwise. But there is an increasing call for better privacy along with the rapid dominance of smartphones.
Maybe website-based social networking is starting to feel a little dated? Or what about the ‘exclusivity’ or prestige which could easily be attached to this kind of closed-off social networking? It’s a marketers dream come true.
What do you think? Will LINE blitz the communication and social networking scene in the US? Or fall by the wayside after its fifteen minutes of approaching fame? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.