Microsoft's Week Involved Kin Phones, Spindex, Newsgroups

Microsoft's week revolved around social networking, with the company announcing preorder and release dates for its Kin One and Kin Two smartphones, targeted at a young and always-connected demographic, as well as the technical preview of a social-networking-site aggregator called Spindex. Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie launched FUSE Labs in October 2009 to focus company efforts on developing applications such as Spindex, but whether audiences attach themselves to Microsoft's social-networking initiatives remains to be seen.

Microsoft's week was all about the social: on May 5, the company announced that its Kin One and Kin Two phones would be available for preorder starting May 6, with an in-store rollout to follow on May 13. The phones are geared toward a younger demographic-"the sharing generation," in the words of Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices Division President Robbie Bach, during the devices' April 12 unveiling in San Francisco-and accordingly put a heavy emphasis on social-networking tools.

With its round shape and sliding QWERTY keyboard, the Kin One resembles the Palm Pre; the Kin Two has a more rectangular shape, and includes an 8.0-megapixel camera in addition to its own retractable keyboard. Early reviews of the device have been decidedly mixed, with generalized praise for the Kin Studio feature that uploads user content to the cloud. However, qualms from blogs and other tech sites included the user interface, the relative expensiveness of the phones' data plan given the younger demographic and some hardware issues.

At least some of those complaints could affect the Kin's ultimate sales run, given the sheer number of factors needed to work in harmony in order for the device to become a hit.

"Success will depend on how well Studio and Windows Live support integrate with the phone, and since only Microsoft can deploy a new service to the device, how well it does so is critical," Jack Gold, principal analyst of J. Gold Associates, wrote in an April 13 research note. "Success will also depend on what types of service plans are available, how they're priced and how good the service is (i.e., the AT&T/iPhone fiasco would be a killer for Kin). Finally, what specialized services will the carriers offer to try and garner some of the potential cloud revenue?"

Verizon will be the exclusive carrier of the Kin phones in the United States, while Vodaphone will take over those duties when the devices hit the market in Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom later in 2010. Whether the Kin succeeds as a franchise, though, the true mobile battle for Microsoft comes at the end of the year, when the company rolls out its long-awaited Windows Phone 7 in a bid to reclaim some initiative in the battle against Google Android and the Apple iPhone.

The social extended to Spindex, a Web service designed to aggregate its users' various social-networking feeds onto a single screen, which Microsoft revealed May 4. FUSE Labs, a Microsoft division devoted to building software with a social connectivity focus, and the unit behind other recent products such as Docs for Facebook, was responsible for creating the application.

"As you increasingly tweet, post to Facebook and capture ideas with tools like Evernote, we want to help you get the most out of your social activity by exposing the right information, at the right time, in a way that's meaningful," Lili Cheng, general manager of FUSE Labs, wrote in a May 4 posting on the Official Microsoft Blog. "Spindex, which we're making available in early technical preview form, aggregates your social streams (Facebook, Twitter, Bing, etc.), making it simple for you to find what's new, see personalized trending topics, and generally make the most of the time you spend being social on the Web."

The release of Spindex's technical preview, along with Microsoft's April 29 unveiling of an upcoming version of Windows Live Messenger that bundles everything from video chat and Bing search into the user's message stream, re-emphasizes the company's focus on not only baking social-networking applications into its platforms, but also aggregating as much content as possible into those applications.

The overarching philosophy behind Spindex can be traced back to Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, who launched FUSE Labs in October 2009 with a focus on "software and services that are centered on social connectivity, real-time experiences and rich media." Both Ozzie's need to create such a division, as well as Microsoft's push into Kin and Windows Live Messenger, reflect the generalized influence of sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The impulse extends beyond the consumer into the enterprise sphere: Microsoft Communicator Mobile for Nokia devices, launched May 5, attempts to incorporate social networking into the enterprise, by allowing users of Nokia Eseries smartphones to check on colleagues' availability and then communicate with them via e-mail, text, phone call or instant message.

Even as Microsoft showed more signs of embracing this new paradigm, the company also took a look back-specifically, at its 4,200 public and private newsgroups related to products and programs. Having found this service wanting in comparison to its forums such as Microsoft Answers, TechNet and MSDN, Microsoft will start closing the newsgroups in June.

Since 2009, Microsoft has aggressively culled a number of legacy projects, mostly aging software programs such as Encarta, as it seeks to shift its corporate weight behind flagship products such as Windows and Office. That strategy may have paid off with Windows 7, which analytics firms Janco Associates insisted in a May 3 research note had finally passed Windows Vista in terms of operating-system market share-but whether Microsoft will enjoy the same sort of success in its social-networking initiatives is something that won't be decided for several quarters, at least.