Aaron Shapiro

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The Great Success of Microsoft's Kin

Originally published in Mediapost, July 2, 2010

Last week, Microsoft killed its first phone product, Kin. Ad Age called it "One of the fastest launch-to-failure paths ever taken by a major marketer." The New York Times quipped, "That didn't take long," pointing out that the phone was on the market for 48 days but in development for 2 years. Two weeks prior to the sacrifice, rumors kicked up that only 500 Kins were sold in the phone's first six weeks of life. One voice rang out from the masses: a parent whose 13-year-old daughter bought one and really liked it. Silicon Alley Insider's one-liner: "FOUND! Someone who has bought a Microsoft Kin!" Based on immediate media response, the phone will go down in Microsoft history as another colossal failure like Zune and Windows Vista. Microsoft can't keep up with the Joneses, the business world buzzed.

I decided to check out the train wreck for myself by visiting my local neighborhood Verizon store. The sales associate helpfully told me that the store has sold a total of two Kins, one of which was later returned, and that "it doesn't really do anything." But after playing around with it myself, I've concluded that the 13-year-old Kin fan may be smarter than the eager naysayers in the media.

Now, let me preface this with the point that the Kin was, without a doubt, a massive product failure. It didn't have a calendar that let users schedule events. It didn't have GPS or an app store. It may have been foiled by Verizon's data and voice plan costs. It might have been priced too high for its limited capabilities. Or it could be that the market is simply to saturated with Androids and iPhones to allow for a new entrant. The Kin, however, did point to the way people want to manage their social lives. It gave users the ability to pilot their digital network of friends in a seamless, unified way never before possible. It has some features that are likely to become standard ways for how people communicate:

  • Universal Inbox: The Kin's home page was a feed of status updates -- not just from Facebook, but also Twitter, Windows Live, MySpace and any RSS feeds. Users didn't have to log on to several different social media services or rely on a widget or app peripheral to other operations to access their whole network. The shared status feed was just there as simple and as natural as a conversation. If the Kin folded in email, SMS and voicemails, it'd be the inbox I've always been looking for: no more multiple logins and status lists.
  • Social Media Speed Dial: The Kin had a screen where users could feature their best friends and their most recent status updates. This means Kin owners didn't have to wade through the announcements made by acquaintances, former friends and Farmville to get to need-to-know information. Once the phone learned the identity of the user's favorite friends, it would display their status updates more frequently in The Loop.
  • Unified People: Users could access their friend's Facebook and MySpace pages all with the swipe of the finger from the person's image. No need to open separate applications or websites to get the whole digital identity of a friend. And, the user's address book was fully integrated with social: look up a contact and you see their latest status updates; see a tweet and click on a link to call. The result: contacting friends and seeing what they're up to had never been easier.
  • Limited Reliance on Keyboard for Communication: With the Kin, users could share messages via text, SMS or email without typing an address-all drag and drop navigation. Something for the iPhone and iPad to think about.
  • Cloud Consumption: Photos, videos, texts and call logs all automatically updated to a user's Kin Cloud site. The result was no more plugging in and copying photos from phone to laptop, tablet or desktop. If this capability could be incorporated with the iPad's fabulous photo viewing environment, its challenging file management system wouldn't be a problem.

It's clear Microsoft put a lot of effort into evolving social media. I'm not surprised that they based development in part off of insights from more than 50,000 twenty-somethings. The Kin minimized a problem created by social networks, a phenomenon I call social life sprawl: the need to update and read several feeds to stay connected with friends and family. Microsoft wasn't the first to tap into this need. FriendFeed has already begun to solve this problem, as have apps like TweetDeck. But the Kin took this solving social life sprawl to another level of functionality.

While the Kin failed, the ideas behind it will undoubtedly live another day. Microsoft did successfully key-in to the way consumers want to manage their social lives. And these qualities will show up in future products, whether launched by Microsoft, Google, Apple, or the next great startup.