It's been almost a year since I last talked about LINE and a lot has happened. While the Japanese app has gained 200 million users to 300 since January, other competitors have been pushing to gain more relevance in the free messaging app territory either adding new features, redesigns for new operating systems or strategic moves in developing markets. In fact, it's been a crazy year trying to follow all the efforts of the likes of WhatsApp, Viber and even Facebook with its Messenger specific app so maybe it's time to check out LINE once again to see what has changed.
If you're not familiar with the LINE name I don't blame you. The messaging app and its family of casual games and utility apps were originally introduced in Japan backed by the South Korean search engine giant Naver — which sounds big and incredibly exotic. Despite the effort banding with international celebs such as Paul McCartney, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, not many of my friends here in London have heard the name, and those who have installed the app at some point aren't actively using it.
Is that a new flat theme?
Although LINE is mainly known for its stickers, what originally drew me to try the service was the interface design. I discovered the app thanks to the recommendation of a couple of design-minded friends, who were absolutely right about it. When all the competitors were offering essentially the same thing — free instant messaging on the go — the look and feel of the app matters a big deal to me.
Four months running iOS 7, my perception has changed. Try to launch LINE, with account verification and everything, to realise the app still uses old conventions such as navigation bar gradients and buttons. Not the kind of design that blends well with the iPhone's operating system. Now, the latest update release includes a 'Simple' theme available for iOS users that attempts to replicate the flat design you would expect from new apps release these days on the App Store.
The themeing route could just be too cumbersome in an app that is already quite complex. Ideally, I would expect LINE to identify the device model and iOS version I'm using to present me with a matching interface if not a native version. The installation steps and creation of a new LINE account are all done with the older 'Original' theme, which gives an impression of "this app is really outdated". The new flat theme follows the same structure of the old app removing gradients and bevels, but it's still not the thing. There are some hints, such as the native settings view or the status bar in black that gives it away, almost screaming to be compiled for iOS 7. Most users will notice the old grey keyboard (like Viber) is still there.
If you forgive this kind of app themeing in 2014, there's the opportunity to have some good fun. Bundled on the theme section are two other versions featuring Cony and Brown, the rabbit and bear mascots you have seen on the popular stickers. These are so cute that you might get in the mood of a full pink interface full of quirky details. One year later since my last use, LINE continues to be full of crazy manga-inspired surprises that, depending on your taste, can be truly delightful.
The progress of adoption
Appearance is something that matters to a few only. The ecosystem of free messengers is renown for it's poor design. In fact, I bet Viber or WhatsApp are among the top three worst-looking apps you have installed right now. And it's not because people are not fantasising with better user experiences!
The ultimate deal-breaker in this app category is the volume of users who actively use the service. Basically which app your friends are using. I only need to install a couple of popular apps to realise that LINE recognises 18 of the contacts on my phone (mostly Spanish speaking), compared to the 74 on WhatsApp and 46 on Viber. I can convince a couple of people to try it and keep using it as a separate platform, but then I could also go for LINE's Band, which is geared towards group messaging.
According to Distimo's annual figures, LINE had some strong presence being the 8th most downloaded free app on Google Play, remaining behind of WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger. The combination of apps and games available leaves Naver Japan as the 8th top developer of free apps in 2013 in number of downloads on the App Store and third on Google Play. More surprisingly, the developer also ranks high on the top grossing apps being fourth and first on the App Store and Google Play respectively according to the 2013 Year in Review report.
For a developer with this success I would expect more effort updating its LINE messaging app and enough support for international markets in 2014.