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OTT Wars: Revenge of the Theme Parks

When traveling to another country, I pay little attention to the phone number graven into the disposable SIM I buy at the airport. It'll get me to a network and the operator will start pinging me with offers. Savvy ones will offer a data plan, as I'll use WeChat or WhatsApp to comm with essential people.

WeChat has in-app translation and allows sending of "stickers"—there are stock collections but people can make their own, and creative friends gift me with nice salty ones. WhatsApp is encrypted end-to-end, they say, but as it's now owned by Facebook (whose "privacy protection" is suspect at best), who knows what that means? WA does, however, provide read-receipts for messages.

And then there's Line, which seems to think it should be written in all-caps, but won't be here. This OTT comms app has an interesting pedigree.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan took out essential communication networks at a time when they were most needed. Engineers from NHN Japan (a subsidiary of Korean film Naver—the intermingling of Japanese and Korean entities in the Line ecosystem is difficult to untangle) created Line as an alternate comms tool, and released it to the public in June, three months after the disaster.

It ain't just cute, it's Japan/Korea-cute
Wikipedia says that Line reached 100 million users within eighteen months, then hit the 200 million mark six months later. In 2013 Line became Japan's largest social network...perhaps because of cute stickers developed by a Korean designer. Sending "stickers" (images, often animated cartoon characters) is popular on both Line and WeChat.

WeChat is big in greater China, but Line has become the de facto OTT messenger app in Thailand. There's no translation features (yet, anyway) but Line has captured the Thai market.

And now they've opened an "indoor digital theme park" in Bangkok's trendy Siam Square district.

Urban retail theme park
"Line Village Bangkok will begin operating [June 23] as a retail store, selling dolls and similar merchandise, but later this year will expand to a three-story amusement complex with virtual reality rides," said the AP in a report. "Line stores already exist in Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan, but the Thai location will be the first with an indoor park," said the AP.

Given Bangkok's tropical climate and awe-inspiring rainstorms, it's not surprising that an indoor destination was chosen. The Siam Square area is a crowded urban center with many shopping malls and standalone shops. It's not exactly theme-park territory, but Line's stickers are based around "anthropomorphic animal figures, such as Brown the bear and Cony the rabbit," so expect kids in mascot-suits to be there urging purchases of fluffy toys featuring said anthropomorphized creatures.

Unlike large standalone theme-parks like Disneyland (various locations) or Lotte World in Seoul, Line's new facility will be shoehorned into a popular destination with hundreds of other attractions. Despite Line's overwhelming popularity in Thailand, this is a high-stakes gamble. Trendy businesses come and go in Siam Square all the time.

The AP report quotes Kampanart Wonghongkul, the project's chief executive, saying he hopes the $14.7 million theme park will attract more than 12 million visitors a year. Considering the overstuffed Skytrain and traffic-choked roads in the area, residents can only hope he's wrong.

And considering how crowded Siam Square shops get on weekends, it's good to know that the nearby MBK Center has all manner of interesting shops and eateries, while the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre is just across the street.

Of course there's also the magnificent Scala cinema—with its massive curved Cinemascope screen, thousand-seat auditorium and majestic Moorish-themed lobby—in the area. The Scala still shows first-run motion pictures—it has since its opening in 1970.

Tail wags dog?
According to Kampanart, Thailand has around 44 million cellphone users and 94 percent of them have the Line application installed on their phones.

But let's do the math on this theme-park based on a mobile-phone product that didn't exist five years ago. Of those 44 million nationwide, how many have the means to make a pilgrimage to Bangkok to visit this place?

Has an OTT messaging app become so overweening that it drives retail strategy in Thailand's most retail-clotted district? Apparently so. Will it succeed? Who knows?

Strange "friends"
A comment from a potential customer, as reported by the AP, shows a mindset many of us (who grew up in a social milieu unpopulated by cartoon "friends" and incessant texting) find puzzling.

"I think it's hard to find Line merchandise in Thailand," said Sakdipat Thanee, a 27-year-old lawyer who was one of several shoppers invited for a special store preview. "For people who love Line characters like me, having a Line store here means that I can easily shop here."

"I can meet Brown and Cony much more easily," he said. Thus, we're living in a world where 27-year-old lawyers now say they "meet" cartoon characters from an OTT messaging app.

Me, I'll be at the Scala.

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