LINE: A free alternative to Skype and WhatsApp worth checking out

With the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook, and Microsoft's intent to modify how external programs and devices integrate with Skype, an alternative messaging application is needed. Enter LINE.

Image: LINE Corporation

Facebook announced in February 2014 that it intended to purchase WhatsApp, a cross-platform instant messenger for smartphones, for $19 billion. WhatsApp exploded in popularity several years ago by replicating SMS as standard data for smartphones, bypassing the need to pay mobile network operators a premium for text messages. A service outage following the announcement, questionable security practices, high-profile exploits, and the specter of having Facebook as a corporate parent has resulted in a rather unpalatable situation for WhatsApp users.

As pointed out by Slate's Matthew Yglesias, Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp is somewhat baffling to begin with—the entire business model is predicated on the fact that mobile network operators have not disabused themselves of the delusion that they are anything more than dumb pipes for data to pass through. Despite assurances from the CEO that nothing changes at WhatsApp, confidence in such statements is low, when compared to the shenanigans occurring with Skype, now a unit of Microsoft. Microsoft's then-CEO Steve Ballmer insisted to users that "you can trust us."

With recent updates to Skype since its acquisition, a banner advertisement for Skype has been placed at the top of the Application window, decreasing the available area for the chat window. Plans to discontinue the Skype Desktop API—the method through which devices interact with Skype, and arguably one of the most popular features—were temporarily halted in November 2013 after an outcry from users and hardware vendors about breaking compatibility with existing products, with no replacement API available to cover those functions.

Necessity is the mother of invention

With the uncertain futures of Skype and WhatsApp, the need for a new, cross-platform messaging solution is apparent. The best replacement for these is LINE, a messaging program developed by a team at NHN Japan, a division of the South Korean Naver Corporation. (LINE was spun out last year to a subsidiary of Naver, appropriately called LINE Corporation.)

LINE was initially developed as a means to stay in communication after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, which damaged a great deal of the telecommunications infrastructure in Japan. After being released to the public in June 2011, the service rapidly expanded in popularity, reaching 100 million users within the first 18 months of release. LINE reached 300 million users late last year.



This rapid growth in popularity is due, to a great extent, in the ease of access and the number of platforms for which LINE is available. Unlike competing services from western firms such as WhatsApp, and BlackBerry Messenger, and from eastern firms such as KakaoTalk and Tencent's WeChat, LINE has clients for Windows 7, Windows 8 / RT, and OS X. In addition, LINE has apps for the Nokia Asha (S40) platform, as well as Firefox OS, which is quickly proving to be an attractive option for smartphones in developing countries. Of note, third-party implementations of WhatsApp (itself a modified XMPP) were served with DMCA takedown demands earlier this year.

LINE supports instant messaging, as well as voice and video calls, optional address book syncing, and the ability to share current location, photos, videos, and music with other users. Group messaging up to 100 people at once is also supported.

A welcome departure from the ship, sell, and bail method

With a glut of high-profile acquisitions coming from Silicon Valley in recent years, parallels are being drawn to the dot-com bubble bursting. The valuation of WhatsApp at $19 billion seems greatly inflated compared to Microsoft's acquisition of Skype in 2011 for $8.5 billion, itself a transaction that was perceived as overvalued. Compared to Google's acquisition of Nest for $4.2 billion, and Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion (now pending a sale to Lenovo), and Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia's mobile phone unit for $7.2 billion, the purchase of WhatsApp seems drastically overvalued in comparison to organizations that produce hardware.

While Naver / LINE Corporation is not necessarily impervious to a buyout, it operates outside of the sphere of influence of Silicon Valley, and this will quite likely work in their favor in the long run. A parallel could be drawn between Naver and Google; Naver debuted in 1999 as a search engine, and has branched out from there. Naver is presently the fifth largest search engine, with most of the user base being in South Korea, where they hold 70% of the market.

Almost too cute to seriously recommend on TechRepublic

LINE is infused with the kawaii (cute) tendencies that many Japanese products are prone to relying upon. While not all products pull this off successfully, LINE doesn't hit you over the head with it. It isn't quite as suit-and-tie as BlackBerry Messenger, as users are able to purchase virtual stickers (some are free), which are sent as large emoticons. Users can add each other using LINE by simultaneously shaking phones. In addition, LINE has inspired two animated series, one of which features characters featured in the aforementioned stickers.



Sound off

Are you searching for an alternative to WhatsApp pending the Facebook acquisition? What is your preferred method of messaging? Are you still hanging on to your vintage AOL Instant Messenger screen name? Let us know in the comments.

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