Why consider another instant messenger?
If something works, don't fix it. Why would you bother trying something new if the old one isn't necessarily broken? Even if you think there's room for improvement, the vast majority of the public might not see anything wrong with something they're used to. Why would you even take the time to download and learn a new app?
The thoughts above summarise what I've felt with instant messaging platforms since iRC: the best system is the one that everyone is using. With the fierce competition trying to grab a piece of the mobile messaging cake, I think it's time to consider other options. There has to be something else better than WhatsApp that I haven't tried yet.
At its core, LINE by Naver is a instant-messaging app that allows users to stay in touch regardless of the platform they use. Along with the immediacy of back and forth chat, there must be something for this app to get the level of traction it's getting in Asian markets — now reaching 100 million users worldwide. A month ago I installed it on my iPhone to see if this can be the real WhatsApp successor.
Setting up an account
Similar to Facebook's Messenger, the developers of Line have understood that barriers of entry matter for a service that needs wide adoption. To create an account you can choose between using your mobile number, a username or your Facebook account.
Why would Line be a serious contender? As a multi platform service, the app is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry. On top of mobile platforms, you are encouraged to use it combined with a desktop experience thanks to the Mac, Windows and Windows 8 versions. Having this level of choice would ensure your friends can use Line on whatever smartphone they use without the obvious limitations of platform-specific alternatives such as iMessages and FaceTime.
In addition to instant messaging, Line aims higher going for the free calls over data connection. Similar to Viber, Skype, FaceTime and more recently Facebook Messenger, Line uses VoIP protocols for voice calls without using the minute allowance on your mobile phone. During my testing the calls were clear and crisp as you would expect. The only caveat is the slight delay answering the call from a push notification, specially if your iPhone is password protected.
Like other apps using the same technology to transfer voice calls over cellular network or Wi-Fi, there are data charges that need to be considered. Those free calls might not be free at all if you have a limited data bundle with your mobile operator.
Enhanced messaging experience
Unlike the plain text and default smileys used in other mobile instant-messaging apps, Line includes a ridiculous amount of content to make your chats a little bit more fun. Photos, voice messages and location information are to be expected here. The signature feature — which I believe makes it very popular among young users — are the emoji.
There's an incredible repository of good quality icons and 'stickers' you can include in your chats, adding a layer of fun you cannot believe until you try it. A constipated bear sitting on the toilet? I'm not too fond of this type of humour, but having a work colleague sending these stole a laugh or too.
A clear business model
Where other messaging apps experiment with monetisation techniques such as subscriptions, Line's approach should give some peace of mind to the user. How many times have you asked yourself "How does WhatsApp make money?" Line has a built-in store where users can purchase premium stickers with real money. The Sticker Shop makes me believe they have a revenue stream other than selling my personal details.
A mini social network
Every user can enable a 'Home' that acts as a small wall where to leave updates for your friends to check out. This is, in fact, a microblogging feature within the app that cannot be accessed on a browser, ensuring those photos, videos and location info are visible to your Line contacts only. There's also opportunity for interaction, allowing your friends to comment on your timeline — which feels like early Instagram days.
One account on multiple devices
The service also promises to use your mobile number for verifying every account registered (they send an activation code), explaining this won't be shown to other users. If you decide to use the desktop version, you need to associate an email address and choose a password. This will be useful to keep all your settings if you happen to change mobile number.
Serious about privacy
Allowing users to register by means other than their mobile phone number protects their privacy to certain extent. You can share your username ID with people you wouldn't necessarily give your number — something similar to the way I use my Skype account.
Line also asks permission to access your contacts, which was a big thing when Viber was found to the cross-referencing this information to identify who's using the service. If you allow Line to access your Address Book, the app will send mobile phones and email addresses to their serves to look for potential contacts as encrypted data. Alternatively, you can enter your contacts manually.
There's also the option to opt-out from this automatic matching. This ensures you don't appear on the Friends list of just anyone tho has saved your number. Scary thing to see your old boss is on your WhatsApp contact list!
Refined user interface
The app shows the level of testing and feedback it has received since its launch in 2011. Not only the UI looks fantastic, but there are usability touches that demonstrate true attention to detail.
When you call, for instance, you can return to the main menu and go through your chats while the conversation is still going. There's also a handy collapsable menu on the chat window with common actions. This gives you an eight button grid of options that is big enough to read and tap comfortably without cluttering the interface.
A family of related apps
Despite the effort to pack so many things in a humble instant-messaging app, there are other features that have been left out and now live as independent apps. Seriously overwhelming!
Just to give you an idea of what's out there: LINE Camera uses the distinctive stickers to decorate your photos and share them on social networks. LINE Card uses the same familiar characters to customise virtual greeting cards. Finally, LINE Brush is a drawing app with brushes and photo effects. There's even a coffee shop spotting app appropriately called LINE Cafe! And you don't want me to mention the flashlight type app they have, do you?