Microsoft's Kin Targets Younger, Savvier Smartphone Buyers

Microsoft debuted its Kin One and Kin Two smartphones, aimed at a 15-to-25-year-old demographic, during high-profile presentations in San Francisco and New York City on April 12. The smartphones emphasize social networking and the ability to near-instantly share videos, images and messages with a wide variety of contacts. While the presence of the Kin One and Kin Two may not drastically sway Microsoft's fortunes in the smartphone arena, analysts suggest that this new initiative shows how serious the company is about being a competitor in the consumer mobile space.

Microsoft's new Kin One and Kin Two smartphones, aimed at a younger audience, were unveiled during a high-profile presentation in San Francisco on April 12, with journalists in New York City following along via live video feed. Both devices, whose features emphasize social networking, will make their U.S. debut exclusively on Verizon in May; the question is what effect, if any, the phones will have on Microsoft's attempts to regain and solidify market-share in the smartphone arena.

At Barcelona's Mobile World Congress in February, Microsoft revealed Windows Phone 7, a new mobile operating system designed to supplant its Windows Mobile franchise, which had been steadily losing ground in the face of fierce competition from the Apple iPhone, Google Android devices, and others. Windows Phone 7 devices are expected to debut near the end of the 2010, and represent the main effort of Microsoft to regain that ground; while the Kin smartphones will be a sideshow to that effort, their presence is being taken as a sign by analysts that the company is more serious about its mobile prospects.

Microsoft occupied 15.1 percent of the smartphone OS market for the three-month period ending in February 2009, down from 19.1 percent the quarter before, according to research firm comScore. That lags behind Research In Motion, with 42.1 percent, and Apple with 25.4 percent. Google landed in fourth place in that survey, with 9 percent of the market, but the expectation is that its market-share will continue to grow rapidly as more hardware manufacturers and carriers push Android-equipped devices onto the market over the next year.

"Microsoft's two youth-oriented phones, Kin One and Kin Two, are not a huge event for the stock," Katherine Egbert, an analyst with Jefferies & Co., wrote in an April 12 research note. "But today's announcement, coming one month after the [Windows Phone 7] OS debut, indicates Microsoft is increasingly serious about the mobile market."

Click here for more information on the Kin One and Kin Two.

But the one-two combination of Windows Phone 7 and Kin could present issues in other ways, at least according to one analyst.

"Kin is the best thing Microsoft has done in the consumer mobile world and represents a well-thought-out, well-implemented product for an attractive audience segment," Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, wrote in an April 12 email to eWEEK. "The decision to call Kin devices -Windows Phones,' however, undermines Microsoft's story for developers, who will have to deal with three flavors of Windows Phones going forward."

The smaller Kin One, which has a form-factor heavily reminiscent of the Palm Pre, includes a sliding QWERTY keyboard, a touch-screen, and a 5.0-megapixel camera with flash capable of shooting SD video. The larger Kin Two, which resembles the T-Mobile Sidekick, also includes a sliding QWERTY keyboard, 8.0-megapixel camera capable of shooting HD video, stereo speakers, and 8GB of memory. The Kin One's screen resolution is 320 x 240, while the Kin Two's is 480 x 320. Both devices will integrate the Zune media player, and data such as texts can be uploaded to the cloud via a password-locked Website called Kin Studio.

Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices Division, mentioned during the San Francisco presentation that the phones' target was "the sharing generation" for whom "social life is their priority number one."

To that end, the Kin devices include all manner of features, including those cameras, for capturing the latest Guitar Hero solo or relationship crash-and-burn in real time. But the first version of the Kin One and Kin Two smartphones also lack Flash support for the browser, a memory-card slot, a traditional calendar application, or the ability to send missives through Instant Messenger. There is also a lack of games, perhaps surprising given the target demographic; during the New York City briefing, Microsoft executives said that games were de-prioritized in their build, and that Kin owners who wanted to kill time could find other ways with the phone to do so.

Whether those features will affect the uptake by the intended 15-to-25-year-old audience remains to be seen. In any case, though, Microsoft seems more determined than ever about wholeheartedly shifting to a more consumer-oriented profile in the smartphone world.