Hands on with Line, the 60 million user strong mobile-social network from Japan

Line is a fast-growing new mobile-social network and platform from NHN Japan. It’s available now as a free download for iOS and Android devices, with additional in-app purchases for custom content such as virtual stickers.

Although still relatively unknown outside of its native Japan, where it launched back in June 2011, as of this week Line had more than 60 million users, more than 25 millon of whom are Japanese. Industry watcher Dr. Serkan Toto has been following the growth of the mobile social network and platform. As you can see from his chart, the service was able to pass the 50 million user threshold much faster than both Twitter and Facebook.

Chart: Dr. Serkan Toto.

NHN Japan has been capitalizing on the popularity of its upstart social network, rolling out social games and a horoscope service in order to turn it into a social platform for other apps.

At its core however, Line is a free calling and messaging app. There are several components to the Line experience. After signing up — which may be done with an email address or phone number on iOS but requires a phone number on Android — the user is initially invited to start adding friends. This may be achieved in several ways — searching for a specific ID, scanning a QR code, “shaking” devices in close physical proximity to one another or joining a group chat and adding friends from the participants list. The app also allow for  “official accounts” from brands and celebrities to post messages, but at present this functionality appears to be limited to certain territories such as Japan — there are, at the time of writing, no official accounts in the U.S. or U.K.

Once the user has some friends, they have a number of possibilities. The app can be used for simple asynchronous messaging similar to Apple’s own iMessage and other rival apps such as Kik and WhatsApp. It’s also possible to send photo, video and voice messages to one another, and also to make free voice calls between users. The chat functionality is solid, though some App Store users have complained that it does not show when a partner is typing — a relatively minor issue, but one which is expected by some due to its presence in other, similar apps.

The app’s monetization primarily stems from the sale of virtual “stickers” which can be posted into chat windows as a means of visual expression. A selection of default stickers is provided to users upon downloading the app for the first time, and additional stickers are made available for free during special events such as the Olympics. Naver also makes use of sticker offers to promote their other Line-branded apps, with free packs of special stickers available for those who download and install them.

Besides the asynchronous chat facility, Line also features a mobile-social network. Users are able to post photos, videos and location information on their “Home” page and follow the updates of their friends using the Timeline view. Privacy settings allow users to customize exactly which friends see different updates, and users are able to like and comment on individual posts as they see fit. In an interesting twist, “likes” are represented by one of several different icons according to various emotions the user may wish to express towards the post, including love, laughter and shock. This feature helps give users much more helpful, immediate feedback on their posts than a simple “like,” which can be somewhat ambiguous in meaning.

As a messaging service, Line is a solid app with some excellent functionality that has a strong but unobtrusive monetization strategy in place. The fact that it is also designed for brands and celebrities to be able to engage directly with their fans is a bonus, though for it to succeed in the U.S. and other territories there will likely need to be some takeup from these “official” accounts.

The iOS version of Line is currently ranked at No. 45 in Top Free Social Networking apps and No. 19 in Top Grossing Social Networking Apps in the U.S. In  Japan, the app is the No. 3 Top Free Social Networking app and the No. 1 Top Grossing Social Networking app. It is also the No. 12 Top Grossing app in Japan, and the No. 26 Top Free app overall at the time of writing.

On Android, Line is ranked at No. 52 in the Communication category of Google Play in the United States at the time of writing. It is also currently ranked as the No. 64 Top Grossing app.

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