Can Kin, Windows Phone 7 Series Rescue Redmond?

While the wireless industry is still sussing out the pros and cons of the Windows Phone 7 Series, Microsoft yesterday made another attempt in revamping itself as a viable contender in the lucrative smartphone sector with the unveiling of the new Kin series of handsets, arriving on Verizon next month.

There are two Kin models on tap, the Kin One has a pull-down keyboard similar to the Palm Pre and 5-megapixel camera, while the Kin Two has a slide-out keyboard below a landscape-style screen and has an 8-megapixel camera. Both come with software that supports the online store for Microsoft's Zune media player.

Aimed at the young, social networking demographic, each mobile device will come with social media apps. Kin Loop is similar to HTC's Sense UI and Palm's webOS Synergy feature, that displays updates to Facebook and Twitter and the like on the homescreen.

The other social app, Kin Spot, mirrors Motorola's Blur program and streamlines social media by allowing users to drag pictures, video clips, text messages and so on to one spot on the screen. Verizon and Microsoft have not yet disclosed pricing and launch dates.

The Kin handsets appear to be impressive entry-level smartphones, according to a hands-on Kin reports by Ars Technica and Kin first-impressions article Wired, but they are not true Windows Phone 7 Series (WP7S) phones, which might add to confusion in the consumer mind.

Still, Jack Gold, founder and principle analyst at J.Gold Associates, says the Kin series may be the sleeping giant of Microsoft's new Windows mobile strategy.

"Many argue that WP7 is Microsoft's 'must win' offering. And I agree that if WP7 is an utter failure, Microsoft is in trouble in the mobile space. But, I would argue that Kin may be the more important product of the two OS offerings.

"Kin is a bigger gamble, whereby Microsoft is trying to define a new market niche. If it catches on, Kin could usher in a new class of 'Facebook in Your Pocket' devices, just like iPhone created a class of devices for Internet-centric users. And Kin could grow virally - affecting a large group of 'teeners' and twenty-somethings, and offering the potential for huge upside if these devices take hold with this relatively fickle audience. Compared to the business-oriented 'pro-sumer' market where WP7 is aimed, the potential numbers of 'Kin-sters' is staggering," Gold said in a research note.

He also notes that the Kin's success could largely depend on whether the targeted demographic cares about the lack of third-party app functionality on the device and if Microsoft can use the series to sell cloud-based services.

"Success will depend on how well Studio and Windows Live support and integrate with the phone, and since only Microsoft can deploy a new service to the device, how well it does so is critical. Microsoft is going after a new 'niche' that hasn't directly been targeted before with a locked down device Will the targeted users care that they can't download the apps they want, like on iPhone and Android? Probably not, although the Kin browser does support AJAX and JAVA, but not Flash.

"But the potential win for Microsoft is huge if it can capture even a relatively small fraction of the hundreds of millions of social network users. In fact, it could dwarf the few tens of millions potential of its WP7 smart phone devices. With Kin, Microsoft gets to sell a lot of services in the cloud, and not just license the OS, as in WP7, so Kin is ultimately far more profitable than WP7," Gold said.

Will New Windows Mobile Software WP7S Rescue Redmond?

And what of WP7S? The approach Microsoft is taking -- rolling out a completely new platform with an innovative interface but one that mirrors Apple's controlled strategy and consumer flavor -- is a radical departure for Microsoft, and some industry analysts see it as having both benefits and drawbacks.

WP7S is a completely new mobile operating system, rather than an evolution of Microsoft's existing Windows Mobile platform -- now so outdated that making a clean break and starting again from scratch was Microsoft's only viable option.

"Microsoft is laying an impressive technical foundation that could not be achieved by jerry-rigging something on top of Windows 6.5. Some of the technologies and capabilities that Microsoft is showing off are significant advances," Avi Greengart, analyst at Current Analysis, said in a recent report.

The strategy that Microsoft is pursuing with WP7S is similar to that adopted by Apple in 2007: make a device that appeals to consumers, and rely on those consumers to drive the platform's adoption in the enterprise over time.

That's a departure for Microsoft, whose Windows Mobile platform has been designed first and foremost as a miniature PC operating system for enterprise users, offering connectivity to corporate email and other systems and the ability to be managed centrally by IT departments.

Talking at MIX10, Joe Belfiore, vice president of Microsoft's Windows Phone unit, described the WP7S target customer: "38-years-old, 76 percent employed, 73 percent in a partnered relationship. They care about their work email, and are more likely to buy a slightly more expensive phone and load it with apps."

What's become clear over the last few weeks is that Microsoft has decided to abandon its free and easy approach to mobile device hardware and software, opting instead to copy Apple's "closed ecosystem." That means that Microsoft will dictate the hardware specifications for WP7S handsets that manufacturers are allowed to produce, and keep tight control of the WP7S user experience by allowing only Microsoft-approved apps to be installed on WP7S devices. These apps will be available exclusively through its own Marketplace.

"By mimicking Apple's locked down approach to hardware, development, app store and OEM customization, Microsoft does give developers a single platform to target and avoids the risk of fragmentation, but it risks being left behind should (when) Apple innovate further," Greengart said.

But when it comes to the interface, Microsoft has taken a very different approach compared to Apple and makers of Android-powered handsets. Instead of copying an app-centric system in which you fire up the appropriate app to carry out a given task, Microsoft's interface aims to bring together different sources of information -- including social media updates, Twitter feeds, photo uploads and so on -- into "hubs" with names such as "People," " Pictures," or "Music and Videos."

From the People hub, for example, it's possible to call or message people, see what they've posted recently on social networking services, or check their location. These hubs, in other words, aggregate information -- both from the device and from "the cloud."

TAGS:

Microsoft, mobile, Apple, windows phone 7 series, Windows Mobile
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