Naver's LINE: the WhatsApp successor comes from Japan

Reliability threatens the free messaging king

WhatsApp is having problems scaling up. Reaching the impressive amount of ten billion messages in a day takes its toll and the rumours about the company's business model have now moved to the service's downtime. There have been issues with the encryption of the messages sent, the security of the accounts questioned and how using WhatsApp messages as part of your data package to text people impacts your bill.

User loyalty of free services is a volatile as its reliability. The legion of fans messaging each other for free isn't going to wait for a fix. Still waiting for an update to make WhatsApp fit the whole screen on your new iPhone 5? People are looking for an alternative. The lovers of the 'free or nothing' are already in the hunt of the next big free service.

Multi-platform messengers are a thing

Sure, iOS users can use iMessage seamlessly without having to set up anything. But a lot of friends and family don't necessarily use an iPhone. The same happened with RIM and its BlackBerry Messenger: locked to the platform. This environment is the perfect place for WhatsApp and other multi-platform services to thrive.

If the aspiring heir to the throne Viber added free calls to the mix, now the Japanese Line brings the same experience to the desktop — this is, PC and Mac apps. This involves the same type of synchronisation Apple offers with iMessage on iOS devices and OS X or Skype itself, including message chats and calls. Backed by Naver, the search engine giant in South Korea, Line shouldn't suffer any growing pains, at least on paper.

Given its Japanese origin, there are some features unexplored by the competition. The classic smileys are everywhere, this time in the shape of stickers, giving your chats the very characteristic expressivity of manga. It looks a bit silly at first, but seen ridiculous amount of the additional (paid) packs, this must be gaining traction somewhere. Perhaps a younger audience than WhatsApp and Skype?

There are also additional complement apps to share photos and drawings. In a surprising move, Line has been partnering with mobile game developers to release branded free-to-play versions. These use the Line contacts to compete for challenges and achievements as mini gaming network of sorts. Titles like HomeRun Battle Burst, Birzzle or Cartoon Wars are only available on the Japanese App Store for now, but you see where this could be going.

Easy on the eyes

I cannot go into the nitty gritty of the iPhone app because I still need to give it some proper testing. I anticipate I'm liking what I see. The interface is well finished, obviously taking care of the looks. There's a grid disposition that might not feel native to iOS but doesn't feel foreign either: the typical iOS gradients and navigation elements are still there.

The overall feeling I get in my first hands on is of polish. I've never heard of Line before yet it looks like a lot of people have helped to improve its design. There are plenty of options to add contacts, customise chat screens, all the crazy emoticon sticker and even a mini homepage where you can do some micro blogging. Something definitely encourages me to keep it installed for a future review.

With my first use also comes the first sad realisation. My iPhone contact list holds approximately 200 telephone numbers. 41 of them are on WhatsApp, 27 on Viber. Of all my friends, only two are registered with Line. Will all the features be enough to tackle WhatsApp's enormous user base?

Top image from Urbantainer Expo, others from Line's blog.