Microsoft Sees Pink with 'Kin'

If "Kin" is Microsoft's Pink then the market might be a little disappointed. I say that because for the better part of a year, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer has told me personally that there is no "Pink," that there is no branded Microsoft smart phone, that he doesn't understand where all the rumors are coming from, and that if there was a phone, he'd know about it.


Microsoft Kin
Microsoft Kin

This morning, at a splashy event at the trendy Mighty Club in San Francisco, Microsoft took the wraps off its new "Kin" smart phone, a device designed from the bottom up with social networking in mind, and in partnership with Sharp Electronics, Verizon and Vodaphone.

If you were expected a Microsoft Zune phone, or a phone specifically branded with the Microsoft logo, you're out of luck. Microsoft seems to be borrowing a page from the Google Nexus One playbook, which had Google working in partnership with HTC to release its own vision of what a smart phone ought to be.

Microsoft is doing much the same thing with Kin.

Sure the phone will have a Microsoft logo on it, but it's built by Sharp. It'll feature, for the first time, Zune capabilities on a smart phone, and it'll run Bing as its default search engine. The rest of the phone is decidedly about social networking. The device features new "experiences" called Loop, Spot and Studio, allowing the connected generation a way to keep connected no matter where they are, what they're doing, and whom they talk to.

There will be two versions of Kin, the One and the Two; the One is smaller, and features a 5 megapixel camera; the Two has a bigger screen, larger keyboard and a better, 8 megapixel camera that also shoots video. The whole phone revolves around its home screen, called the Loop, that brings together everything from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, the web. The Spot is a place users can share everything in their world with one another, from photos and videos to status updates, messages and feeds. The Studio keeps control of texts, call history contacts, and everything else in your life.

It's all about social networking, but what Microsoft and Verizon have to figure out is whether that's enough of a differentiator for consumers to choose Kin over a Blackberry from Research in Motion or the iPhone from Apple. Fact is, this is a neat phone addressing some very key trends in the marketplace right now. But because the allure is largely software based, there's no reason why smart phone users can't add these kinds of capabilities to phones they already own, or turn a Blackberry or iPhone into a kind of Kin with a few customized tweaks.

I like the idea of phones coming pre-programmed and designed to take advantage of the specific things users want to do with them. And a Kin makes sense as a kind of smart phone version of AOL where it's all done and laid out for you so you the tech-challenged don't have much tinkering to do on your own. But I have to believe that those people who might be interested in a Kin because of their heavily connected lives can customize their own smart phones to do what Kin does without having to buy a Kin.

Microsoft's Robbie Bach, who runs the company's Entertainment and Device division, tells me this morning that Kin is the device Microsoft has been working on for some time, and that it will be an important member of the Windows Mobile family.

But that's just it.

Kin is merely a member of a big family, not the patriarch, and certainly not the flagship of the brand. Microsoft counts numerous handset makers as customers on its Windows Mobile platform.

This device will not supplant the biggest sellers running Microsoft's mobile software.

Microsoft Kin
Microsoft Kin

It becomes another choice, and a choice geared at a very specific cross-section of the market. It's a big section, but a section nonetheless. I don't see Kin mounting any meaningful threat to Blackberry or iPhone, and that's where the disappointment by Microsoft investors might register. comScore says Microsoft has been losing smart phone market share to the likes of RIM, Apple and Google, joining Palm in February as the only major platform provider to see declines. There's been lots of hope that Project Pink would somehow come up with a real competitor, a real threat, to start turning that tide. I don't think this will do the trick.

The market place is already hotly competitive. And Windows Mobile devices control a nice chunk of the market. Kin has some nice offerings, available in the US in May exclusively on Verizon, and in Europe from Vodaphone in the summer. Kin is nice, but I think the market is already looking ahead to the next of Kin.