LINE is a communication app that lets you make free phone calls and send free messages. It comes from Japan and it's quickly taking over the known universe. Now, watch – if it sputters out in the next few months and becomes the Friendster of tomorrow, this article will look stupid, but ah well, it's blowing up right now at the time of writing.
LINE is available for PCs and smartphones across various platforms. You can use it for phone calls, texts, graphics, audio, video, video teleconferencing, groups, bulletin boards, timelines, homepages, and silly but elaborate emoticons, all for free.
LINE's world conquest
The app was launched in Japan in 2011 and was originally developed because of the Tohoku earthquake. It was created by the Japan arm of Korea's internet service operator NHN (Next Human Network) because of damaged infrastructure and the difficulty of communicating after the quake. The quake was in March and LINE launched in June.
Available worldwide, LINE grew to 200 million users within its first two years, spreading well outside of Japan. It spread first to Asia and is now conquering more distant shores. Unlike Mixi, Japan's original social media network, you don't need a Japanese phone number to sign up for LINE and this has helped its spread.
Japan's older social media networks Mixi and Mobage were left in the dust and while Facebook and Twitter are now ubiquitous in Japan, their spread has been slower than that of LINE.
A sticker says it all
From my short period of casual use before I got tired of it and realized one social media profile is all I can keep up with in my doddering tech-challenged late-30s, I found the emoticons and stickers to be the most unique part of the app. The Japanese are masters at saying things with wacky punctuation marks shaped like winking schoolgirls or bowing salarymen. Some things just can't be said with words.
You have to buy these stickers and many users do. This is how the free app is monetized and according to what I've read, it's quite a bit of money. Considering how sticker-crazy some of my friends get, I believe it. It offers a whole array of colorful cartoon characters available in its sticker collections, as well as Disney characters, celebrities, TV fixtures like Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan, and so on.
LINE's social side
LINE is more than just a free communication tool. It's a social media site. Like Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, you make a profile, upload a picture, write a tagline and talk about yourself endlessly for the entertainment and adoration of your LINE friends. It's something like Facebook and Skype rolled up into one. According to developers, it's not a meeting place for making new friends, but a place to connect with the friends you already have.
Shake some action
My favorite LINE feature is something a new acquaintance taught me one night at a drinking establishment. You can add friends by shaking your smartphones close together. This is kind of like the old sekigaisen (赤外線 - infrared ray) technique of adding contacts to your phone through infrared ray by holding your phones close to each other. This has been a standard feature on Japanese mobiles for years. Like the infrared ray method, it works about 20% of the time, but it's a heck of a lot more fun.