Here come Cony and Brown, to a phone near you. Line, the Japanese messaging and voiceover internet protocol (VoIP) app, which has grown almost three times faster than Facebook did following its creation, is planning to knock Skype off its perch at the top of the smartphone communications market, using a bear and a rabbit to seduce European consumers.
Best known for its stickers featuring cartoon characters, including Brown the bear and Cony the rabbit, Line has already conquered Asia, with 50 million users signing up in the 12 months following its launch in 2011. Facebook took three years to get 58 million.
The characters can be used to decorate messages, in addition to the usual emojis and emoticons. Some are free, but thousands of other “premium” sets, such as Disney or Pixar characters, can be added for £1.49 each.
The company, now with 230 million users, recently added football clubs FC Barcelona and Real Madrid and tennis world number two Rafael Nadal to its growing list of official accounts. Users can follow updates and interact with the sports stars in real time during “on-air mode”, when the accounts can read and respond to messages.
During this month’s US Open, Nadal sent messages and pictures with Line updating friends on his progress to becoming champion. “Getting out the hotel to Flushing Meadows … waiting for no rain in order to play!” he said in the first week. A few victories later, his account sent a picture of Nadal being interviewed on TV and said: “Press conference after pass semi-finals! Waiting for Monday’s match!”
After winning the tournament, Nadal sent a message thanking Line for all its support and used the opportunity to celebrate the win by offering friends his new stickers. It is no surprise that Spain now has more than 10 million Line users.
Launched as a basic messenger to guarantee easy interaction, Line has gradually added more functions, including a Facebook-style timeline, to distinguish itself from rival communications apps, and has successfully branched into the games market. Its camera app, with “beauty” editing functions to smooth appearances, already has 50 million downloads and last week the company added a video feature, enabling users to take up to 10-second clips.
Reports last month by Credit Suisse in Tokyo said it expects subscriber growth to continue next year, given the continuing rise in global smartphone sales. Analyst Taewon Kim said: “It all began in Japan, but in recent quarters Line has been breaking ground in multiple overseas markets, with many of its apps posting well within the top 10 gross rankings. Line’s Japan revenue per subscriber is higher than Facebook’s in North America.”
Friends and colleagues Mai Saito, Maki Shoji and Yoko Katsuki are typical among Tokyo’s young professionals who all use Line to communicate.
“The best thing is that it’s free,” said Maki. “Then you can see if the person you have sent a message to has read it – so your husband can’t pretend he hasn’t! It’s easy to use, and you can make group chats as well where you message several friends and one person replying is seen by everyone. I nearly always use it to phone people now rather than my network provider, because the connection is so good.”
Yoko said: “Some of the stickers are very comical – characters tearing their hair out or hugging each other, dancing, anything really – so it’s a great way to express your emotions better than just text.”
On the firm’s entry into the mobile gaming market, analyst Kim said: “In markets where Line has been a popular or dominant messenger, Line character games have proved to be top-grossing games as well.”
The app, available on all major mobile platforms, including iOS, Android and Windows Phone, racked up 5 million users in India just three weeks after it launched in July. In a country with 180 million smartphone users, the potential for significant growth is huge. Whether “cute” translates into sizeable market share in the UK and US, however, is something Mark Zuckerberg and others will be keeping a close eye on.