Question and answer sites have for a decade been one of the most popular user-contributed services on the Web — and Japan is no exception. On the traditional Web, the market has been occupied by a few big players, but the recent popularity of smartphones has attracted new startups to the mobile Web field.

Q&A services are not a new thing in Japan. OKWave began its Q&A service in 1999 and its content is syndicated to many other sites. For example, portal site goo hosts Q&As from OKWave under its Oshiete! goo (Teach Me! goo) section.

Hatena started Jinriki Kensaku Hatena (Human Search Hatena) in 2001. The site first gained popularity among tech-savvy users, which Hatena consolidated by targeting a nerd-centric community with other popular services such as blogs and social bookmarks.

Yahoo! Chiebukuro (chiebukuro means a “bag of wisdom”), which launched in 2004, became Japan’s biggest Q&A site by leveraging its connection with Yahoo! Japan, the nation’s top Web portal. Chiebukuro was rebranded in the United States in 2005 as Yahoo! Answers, which has gone on to reasonable success too.

For some people, search engines such as Google are difficult places to find answers; more precisely, it can be hard to think of the appropriate keywords that will lead to the desired information. On Q&A sites, users can simply write a question as they would ask it out loud, and wait for another user to answer it. Even if the question is not well worded, human responders can often guess the meaning.

It is the same in Japan as anywhere else that a stupid question will be met with ridicule, but even so, a good number of people prefer Q&A services to search engines.

Against those established giants, some niche startups have carved out footholds. In the U.S., Quora grew thanks to its high-quality answers written by insiders in various industries, as has CyberAgent’s Qixil in Japan. Stack Overflow, a specialized U.S. Q&A site for programmers, was “paid homage” by Japan’s Qiita. Going niche can be a great strategy for those companies that are late to the party.

Now, new challengers are coming up with the smartphone boom. Smartphones and tablets are gradually replacing PCs, so providing services that are designed from scratch for such platforms is another way for newcomers to compete against the big names.

Smartphone messaging service Line, which squares up against Twitter, Facebook and mixi with its 50 million registered users on mobile, launched its new Q&A service, Line Q, on Dec. 5. Line Q is a smartphone/tablet app on which Line users can ask questions for their online friends to answer.

Line Q has the advantage of promoting its services to Line’s huge user base. Also, active users and good answers earn virtual points that can be exchanged for real money. Line Q can only be used on a mobile device.

On the same day, user-generated how-to service Nanapi launched its own Q&A app, Answer, for iOS. This service is only accessible from a smartphone.

Line boasts that 99 percent of Line Q’s questions get answered, while Nanapi says that 90 percent of Answer’s users get a response within five minutes. These rates are probably so high because users can ask questions of people who already enjoy online social networking and who check their devices on the move. Both apps’ interfaces look similar to texting apps, which seems to encourage casual interactions.

Aorb (As in “A or B”) is another iOS Q&A app, which launched in November. Users upload photos two at a time from their smartphone and ask others to choose between them — for instance, to help decide between two different outfits.

As you may know, on Jan. 8 Twitter co-founder Biz Stone revealed his new startup, Jelly, which is a social Q&A app for mobile devices, just like Line Q and Answer, and features photo-based questions similar to those on aorb.

And of course, many of these apps have points in common. Questions are propagated to social friends, responses tend to be quick and photos can be taken and shared to help track down information. It is interesting that in both Japan and the U.S., proven entrepreneurs have released these similar services at almost the same time. It seems to point toward a shared vision that mobile questioning could be the next big thing on the Internet.

If the existing PC Q&A services are trying to become huge knowledge bases, these new apps seem to be shaping up as socializing platforms that use Q&A simply as a tool.

Long-running PC-originated Q&A services hold a huge database of past content, resources which could allow them to make better smartphone apps. So these mobile-centric newcomers are not guaranteed to succeed. But the timing is right for challengers to grab new users as more and more people switch their main Internet environments from PC to mobile devices. And if they succeed, people’s daily communications will involve more questions and answers in the near future.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on Japan’s Web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 122,000 users.

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