Today, I spent my afternoon in an amphitheater next to Tokyo Disneyland to watch Line’s annual conference. Line is one of the most prominent tech companies in Japan, with a chat app that virtually everyone here uses and which offers various adjacent services, from gaming to ride-hailing to personal finance.
Line’s international push didn’t really work out beyond high-profile stores selling merchandise of its cute mascot characters — another one just opened on Hollywood Blvd — and now the company is focusing on its core markets of Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand. As you’ll see from today’s announcements, the advantage of that approach is that the services can be far more meaningful in their potential for actual real-world usage, because they’re better focused on specific regions.
Here’s what I wanted to see:
hoping for more news on bear-shaped speakers pic.twitter.com/H55MfRxqQV— sam byford (@345triangle) June 27, 2019
Sadly, I was disappointed on that front. But Line still had a lot of interesting news to share, and here are some of the highlights.
Line has increasingly been pushing itself as a fintech company, with Line Pay serving as a popular digital wallet and even a vehicle for personal investment and insurance purchases. Line Score is perhaps the most head-turning product in that space to date — it’s an AI-driven social credit rating system that will provide deals and various offers to users based on their score. A separate loan service called Line Pocket Money will determine rates and credit limits based on a user’s Line Score.
Line Score isn’t as ambitious as the Chinese social credit scores you might have read dubious horror stories about, but it does have a lot in common with Alibaba’s Sesame system. Line is stressing that the product is opt-in-only, will never read chat or call data, and will require approval whenever a third party wants to access it. (Line has offered end-to-end encryption for chats since 2015.)
The timing is conspicuous, however, following yesterday’s recommendation that AI-enabled social credit scores be banned in the EU. Line doesn’t appear to be planning anything nefarious with its score, but it’s still possible that customers in its core markets will be spooked by the concept.
Line considers itself an AI company as well these days, and showed off an impressive live demo of Line Duet, which is basically its take on Google’s Duplex voice chatbot. It’ll likely be a while before Google is able to launch Duplex in Japanese, and Line demonstrated that it’s already working with popular restaurants to implement the technology for reservations and other calls.
LINE MINI APP
Line’s Mini App platform is another new product that cribs from Google’s notes while possibly making a lot of sense for Japan. Like Android Instant Apps, Line Mini App lets companies provide cut-down apps that don’t have to be downloaded.
Businesses in Japan will be able to use QR codes — which were both invented in Japan and remain super popular here, don’t forget — to let customers see menus, access loyalty cards, get coupons, and so on. This integrates with Line’s chat functionality so that, for example, customers can use a points card in a Mini App and then receive message alerts when an order is ready for delivery.
Line Music, the company’s music streaming service, has been a big hit in Japan with more than 11 million monthy active users. Now the company is launching a freemium model called “One Play,” which gives access to a library of 54 million individual tracks at once without listening limits. The idea is that people will then upgrade to the subscription plan to access full albums, playlists, and so on.
Line is also adding music videos to Line Music, and this fall the app will get a major redesign with several new features like an equalizer and a dark mode. Line will also help import your playlists from competing music services by using OCR technology on screenshots, which is certainly one way to to handle the problem.
LINE STICKERS PREMIUM
Line is probably more responsible than any other company for pushing the concept of stickers — giant, often animated emoji, basically — and now it’s starting a monthly subscription service. Line Stickers Premium will cost 240 yen (~$2.20) for access to more than three million sets of stickers from the Creators Market — the company says it’d cost you 380 million yen (over $3.5 million) to buy them all outright.
Line News is a major content portal in Japan, as it has an entire tab of the Line app to itself, and Line is trying to make it a more robust entertainment destination. The company just released Vision, a new product for creators to deliver mobile-first portrait video content right within Line News. Line isn’t just targeting YouTubers here — they’ve signed up creators like renowned designer Yugo Nakamura and Kundo Koyama, scriptwriter of Oscar-winning movie Departures.
To drive the point home, this is Vision’s slogan:
No, Line isn’t going to compete with Google for web search, but Line Search should be really useful for people that live major portions of their lives on Line. It’s an in-app search feature that will pull up media and information from chats as well as all of the content services that Line provides.
Line has a food delivery service called Line Delima, but from today it’s offering a separate takeout option called Line Pockeo where you can order food from a nearby restaurant and pick it up yourself. The space is of particular interest in Japan right now because takeout food will be exempt from a sales tax rise due to take effect later this year. Line says it’s launching a business-focused version of Pockeo that’ll help restaurants start offering takeout options even if they don’t already.
Line did occasionally talk about chat at today’s conference. The big announcement in that area was OpenChat, a new feature designed to let people use and manage multiple group chats more easily. Users can have different profiles for different groups, while people will be able to create and join group chats based on specific interests and with admin features for member approval.
Finally, Line announced the launch of Line Brain, its dedicated AI business. Line Brain is responsible for products like Duet and the Clova AI voice assistant, and plans to license its chatbot, OCR, and speech-to-text technologies to other companies.