LINE, Kakao Talk, WeChat: the future of messaging comes from Asia

29 Jan 2013



As we all have heard thousands of times, the future is mobile.

Having the power of Internet on a phone – right in our hands 24/7 – dramatically changed our lives, and definitely made the world a smaller place. And cheaper, too.

Let’s just think about the impact WhatsApp had on our society. In an article dated back to November 2011, Tim Bradshaw wrote on the Financial Times:

The app, which allows unlimited free text-messaging between users, has done to SMS on mobile phones what Skype did to international calling on landlines.


A pretty strong statement, isn’t it? And what happened just a year later was even more impressive: 18 billion messages has been exchanged inside the WhatsApp system in just one day.


But WhatsApp is not the only free mobile messaging service available, and probably not even the best one around. So how about it’s competitors?

Well, it might be a coincidence, but nowadays the three fastest-growing global threats for the Santa Clara-based mobile app come from Asia.

More precisely from Japan, Korea and China, and all of them offer a wide range of well-integrated social features, that go way beyond the simple “mobile messaging” service. Let’s see them in details.



In June 2011 – a few months after the Tōhoku earthquake and the Fukushima disaster – the Japanese branch of the South Korean Internet company Naver launched a new mobile-based service called LINE.

The aim was to offer the Japanese population a reliable and internet-based alternative to the standard phone line, almost useless during the days following the tragic event.




The service consists in a free instant-messaging app, that allow users to chat and make calls. Only a few months after the launch, LINE experienced a server overload, since the number of users from Japan and abroad started growing at an extremely fast pace.

To establish the app as a top-level competitor in the messaging market, in 2012 Naver introduced a series of social features, such as a Timeline section where to share statuses, pictures and videos with contacts, a Home section, a game center and a market where to buy emoticons (also called stickers or stamps) – a very important feature in order to be appealing in the Asian market, as we will see.


LINE emoticons


The app is well structured, socially integrated, easy to use and… funny, since everything has been designed to offer a pleasant experience to the user:


LINE Timeline


All of the above helped in reaching an impressive result: in less than 2 years the app reached 100 million downloads.

It happened just a few days ago, and Naver Japan took it as a chance to set up a strong promotional boost. They released an infographic (which you can see by clicking here), stressing in particular the extremely fast-pace growth of the app:


LINE infographic


And here’s the message they sent to every LINE user, to make them aware of the milestone, somehow trying to evoke the sensation of being all part of the same team – which is definitely a great marketing move:  


LINE mobile app


But that’s not all: they also released a video to celebrate this impressive result. From Tokyo to Barcelona, from NYC to Taipei, here’s LINE thank-you video dedicated to its first 100M users:



What particularly caught my attention was something said by the girl from Tokyo during the video:

“I say ‘see you on LINE’ when I say goodbye to friends”


Ok, it’s clearly a promotional message; but still, it underlines very well how this kind of technologies are deeply changing our social habits, and the way we relate to each other. And the area of the world we come from doesn’t really matter anymore.


Kakao Talk

Launched in 2010 by Seoul-based Kakao Corp, the free messaging app Kakao Talk shows some very intriguing figures  (here the source):

  • More than 70 million users (mainly from South Korea, with a strong growth of international users).
  • An average of over 3 billion messagessent every day through the app.


There are a series of reasons behind this success: Kakao offers features such as chats, free calls and group calls (with up to 5 friends). Users can share photos, videos and contact info, and all the data exchanged are encrypted.

Its huge variety of emoticons and themes – and the relative markets – are also among the crucial factors in the rapid growth of the app, which has been nominated a Google Android Market Top Developer.


kakao talk


Such features have always been particularly relevant in the the development and growth of social technologies in South Korea – which began quite early, by the way, since Cyworld has been one of the first social networks worldwide to actually become profitable by selling virtual goods, back in early 2000.

But, as we’ve seen with LINE, emoticon stores don’t work only in South Korea, where the app is by far the market leader; in fact, Kakao recently released a series of stickers (or emoticons) targeting Vietnamese users, in the occasion of the Vietnamese New Year, in order to increase its penetration on that market – a 30 million mobile users market.

kakao talk stickers


Are we done with it? Not yet: we absolutely must consider the whole K-pop factor, too.

Since late ’90s Korean pop music started gaining global attention – now reaching unprecedented levels, after the billion-Youtube-views-worthy phenomenon of PSY’s Gangnam Style – and it has always been another very important part of South Korean digital culture.

Therefore, on Kakao Talk there’a s a section called Plus Friends, where users can directly follow K-pop singers and bands, receiving updates such as videos, news and tour dates. And, obviously, get personalized themes and emoticons.

As an example, here are some chat-updates from the Korean teen girl-band Wonder Girls:


Kakao Talk


They are a K-pop sensation also popular in Japan, China and the US – where they entered the Billboard Hot 100. You can get an idea by checking out one of their top singles, Nobody, and think about the fact that they have over 840K followers on their Plus Friends section (you can find all the celebrities active on the platform here).

Need another reason to jump on the Kakao Talk bandwagon? Well, they have a quite efficient customer service on Twitter, @Kakaotalk!



We’ve already discussed (and we will do it again) the incredible succes of Weixin, the messaging/social networking mobile app launched by the Chinese internet company Tencent, then rebranded as WeChat in order to conquer foreign markets such as Indonesia and India, and – why not? – even western countries.

In January 2013 they announced to have reached 300 million users, the great majority of them coming from China – a country with over a billion mobile users. And there’s more: as The Next Web reported, Weixin might be the cause behind the incredibly slow growth of traditional SMS in China – only +2% over the last year, while the free messaging app’s figures literally skyrocketed.

Pretty impressive, right? You can read more on WeChat and all of its features in this post.  


So now the question is: are we going to see one of these apps taking over the worldwide market, putting together hundreds of millions of both Asian and Western users, into one universally-shared free-messaging mobile platform?

And if so, who would you bet on?

Guido Ghedin

Guido Ghedin

After his University years between Italy and California, today he deals with Market Research and Digital Scenario Analysis at Young Digitals. You can follow him on Twitter: @guido_ghedin.


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