Mobile Tech

Microsoft Turns Its Back on Kin

Microsoft is killing off the line of Kin handsets it introduced about six weeks ago. The company has canceled plans to launch the Kin in Europe this fall and has rolled over its Kin development team into its Windows Phone 7 team.

Microsoft said it will continue selling “current” Kin phones with Verizon Wireless in the United States, though with the Kin team now mixed into the Windows Phone group, it appears unlikely that any new Kin devices are planned for the future.

Microsoft launched two models of the Kin — the Kin One and Kin Two — through Verizon around mid-April, targeting the devices at teens and young adults.

However, despite all the marketing efforts directed at the devices, there apparently was some trouble in the wings — the Kin’s launch had reportedly been delayed for about 18 months, and the lost opportunities left Verizon chafing at the bit.

In the meantime, Verizon unveiled the Motorola Droid and began focusing strongly on Android smartphones.

Then on May 25, a major shakeup occurred in Redmond’s mobile division: Microsoft announced the retirement of Robbie Bach, who spearheaded the Kin effort and helped launched the device.

Microsoft has stated that for now it will focus exclusively on Windows Phone 7. It will integrate the Kin team with the Windows 7 team.

“I think Microsoft wants to consolidate all the thinking about its platform on Windows Phone 7,” Maribel Lopez, principal analyst and founder at Lopez Research, told TechNewsWorld. “It doesn’t want fragmentation, and it wants to move forward.”

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The Kin project may well have been in trouble long before its launch. Its developers had originally worked on revamping the Sidekick operating system, which Microsoft acquired when it purchased Danger.

Then mobile division senior vice president Andy Lees reportedly ordered the team to rebuild the device’s operating system from scratch around Windows CE instead of the original Sidekick OS, possibly because Microsoft wanted a unified platform.

That unified platform view is a good strategy, Lopez said.

“Microsoft needs to consolidate around Windows Phone 7 because developers aren’t going to deal with fragmentation right now,” Lopez explained. “They’re willing to do that with Google, but if Microsoft wants to capture their hearts and minds, it needs to give them a solid platform with refreshes, and not something that changes every three to six months.”

The strategy was sound, but its implementation cost Microsoft and the Kin team.

“My understanding is that this rewrite made the Kin anywhere from one-and-a-half to three years late to market,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, pointed out. “This critically harmed the success of the device. Further, it likely made Verizon unhappy with Microsoft and probably pushed it to put even more support behind Google and Android.”

A Tough Row to Hoe

Microsoft’s in a bind because it’s falling way behind in the highly competitive mobile phone market. Its Windows Phone 7 devices won’t be out until near the end of the year, and the Kin was perhaps launched as a stopgap measure to help Redmond at least maintain a presence in the market and remain on prospective purchasers’ radar screens.

“It’s a little tough for Microsoft because it prelaunched in February for a product that’s scheduled to be out in December, and it came out with the Kin to absorb the interim market, then they killed the Kin,” Lopez of Lopez Research commented.

“Microsoft needs to come out with Windows Phone 7 and some really sexy phones,” Lopez said. “No one’s talking about them; Android has all the buzz right now.”

The need for haste is great — Windows phones don’t even register in Gartner’s statistics for worldwide smartphone sales to end users by operating system for the first quarter of 2010. Symbian led with just over 44 percent of the market; RIM came second with over 19 percent; the iPhone operating system third with more than 15 percent; and Android devices came in fourth with more than 9 percent.

In consolidating its mobile devices around Windows Phone 7, Microsoft appears to be falling in line with Gartner’s observation that the most successful smartphone vendors controlled an integrated set of operating system, hardware and services.

However, Redmond’s stumble with Kin may cost it dearly.

“Microsoft has lost a tremendous amount of mindshare in the past year,” Lopez remarked. “It got a tremendous amount of buzz around Kin and then decided to kill the project. That doesn’t inspire confidence right now.”

Perhaps Microsoft also needs to change its focus somewhat.

“Microsoft has a tendency to focus on its products excessively,” Enderle pointed out. “It desperately needs to focus more tightly on the user instead. I’m not sure if it actually sees the real goal yet.”

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