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Line: Japan’s Biggest Messaging App Set to Take On the US

Line is prob­a­bly the biggest mes­sag­ing app you’ve nev­er heard of.

The Japan­ese mes­sag­ing tool which offers users the chance to send mes­sages and make voice calls using 3G, 4G and Wi-fi, is the biggest in its home coun­try and now it’s got its sights set on the mega mar­kets of Chi­na and the US. Great news for any­one who’s look­ing to make lots of calls or who’s look­ing for media jobs…

The com­pa­ny pulled in 50 mil­lion users in its native Japan in the first year — in com­par­i­son it took Face­book three years to achieve that fig­ure. It took that fig­ure and added 50 per cent just six months lat­er. The 74 mil­lion lin­ers it now boasts cur­rent­ly rep­re­sent around one third of mobile users in Japan and around 86 per cent of those are active on a month­ly basis. Forty per cent are on Line every day.

Born of Adver­si­ty

The birth of Line was dif­fi­cult. Fol­low­ing the Japan­ese earth­quake of March 2011, employ­ees of NHN Japan – the com­pa­ny which also runs the search engine Naver — respond­ed to the need to re-estab­lish com­mu­ni­ca­tion between res­i­dents as phone lines went down fol­low­ing the ‘quake. Employ­ees who were forced to turn to the Inter­net to reach each oth­er, devel­oped Line and the app was launched just a few months lat­er.

“Peo­ple were not able to com­mu­ni­cate with tele­phones or e‑mail ser­vices from mobile car­ri­ers and we want­ed as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble to car­ry out a con­ver­sa­tion,” said Jun Masu­da, chief strat­e­gy and mar­ket­ing for NHN Japan. This des­per­ate need to find a way to com­mu­ni­cate fol­low­ing a trag­ic, nat­ur­al dis­as­ter with one anoth­er prob­a­bly goes some way to explain its mete­oric rise to suc­cess.

But is it too cute?

Line’s USP is its colour­ful range of emo­ji – cute ‘stick­ers’ in the dis­tinc­tive Japan­ese kawaii style that can be used to con­vey emo­tions and feel­ings when words just don’t cut it. From an ener­getic bun­ny, to a moon per­son, a rather depressed-look­ing bear and a man called James who is so hand­some he blinds him­self when he looks in the mir­ror. Only in Japan.

While some of the stick­ers come with the app, pre­mi­um emo­ji includ­ing well-known char­ac­ters such as Snoopy can be bought for around $2. Oth­ers are sup­port­ed by big brands such as Coca Cola and noo­dle mak­ers Nissin Foods. Emo­ji sales cur­rent­ly stand at approx­i­mate­ly $3.75 mil­lion per month and with user fig­ures set to reach 100 mil­lion by the end of the year this num­ber can only do one thing.

There are ques­tions over whether these cute char­ac­ters will trans­late and prove suc­cess­ful in the US. While some kawaii such as Hel­lo Kit­ty has proved pop­u­lar, many feel the Line emo­jis will only work in coun­tries that are cul­tur­al­ly sim­i­lar to Japan – so Chi­na and South Korea are pre­dict­ed to be rich pick­ings for line.

What About the Com­pe­ti­tion?

Despite its stratos­pher­ic suc­cess in Japan, it will have fierce com­pe­ti­tion when it leaves home shores. Giants like Apple and Face­book, as well as the car­ri­ers will cer­tain­ly give Line a run for its mon­ey. How­ev­er the mar­ket is frag­ment­ed, with inde­pen­dent play­ers such as the Sequoia-backed What­sApp and Korea’s Kakao TALK also giv­ing good mes­sag­ing. Line will have to work hard to get a foothold in for­eign mar­kets.

The app comes with a trans­la­tor bot which can con­vert mes­sag­ing into Japan­ese, Chi­nese, Kore­an and Eng­lish pro­vid­ing he’s invit­ed into your cha­t­room and Line also comes with a cam­era, games and a social media-esque pro­file / time­line, com­plete with tiny pro­file pic which cer­tain­ly lends it an air of Face­book.

It seems that if any­one can give the big boys a run for their mon­ey, it might be Line.

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