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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