After months of industry-wide speculation about Microsoft’s “Project Pink,” the software giant recently unveiled two phones: Kin One and Kin Two. Manufactured by Sharp (the maker of most T-Mobile Sidekick phones, in partnership with Danger, whom Microsoft purchased in late 2008), the phones will ship with specs found on many of today’s smartphones: capacitive touchscreens, QWERTY, high-megapixel cameras, gigabytes of flash memory, Bluetooth, GPS, accelerometers – the list goes on. Yet, the Kins are not true smartphones, as there is no application support. Rather, the Kin family of products consists of cleverly targeted feature phones.

While the smartphone segment is growing steadily, the wireless industry is certainly not done with feature phones, which we expect to account for approximately two-thirds of handsets sold in North America this year. Earlier this year, AT&T announced intentions to give significant attention to the mid-range, messaging-centric feature phone category, which the operator calls Quick Messaging Devices (QMD).

At Verizon Wireless (who, along with Vodafone in Europe, will soon carry the Microsoft phones), the Kin will make an interesting replacement to aging handsets like LG’s enV series. In a way, the Kin family is part of VZW’s answer to AT&T’s QMD category. Expect VZW and Microsoft to back a heavy advertising campaign when the phones come out, promoting the novel user experience and social networking functions. With a low retail price and some innovation on data plan pricing (see the Nokia Nuron smartphone, which requires just US$10/month for unlimited data at T-Mobile USA), the two Kin models could drive strong volumes for the carrier.

 

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For Microsoft, who recently painted themselves into a high-end corner with hefty hardware requirements on Windows Phone 7, the Kin family represents an interesting platform framework to get closer to the youth segment.

The high-tier Windows Phone 7 will be a natural handset upgrade path for today’s Kin user, as both platforms are forming common elements. While the short-term goal with the Kin family is to expand the addressable market by bringing messaging/social networking services through a robust framework, the long term goal is to own the consumer by highlighting the Microsoft value proposition to him/her early on.

Either way, Kin provides an interesting glimpse into Microsoft’s understanding of the future handset market, where feature phones will rely heavily on the cloud. (Like its Sidekick predecessors, the Kins store user data and content on company servers.) Add to that Windows Live service and Zune content integration, and Microsoft can be seen as gradually ramping up its strength on the multi-screen index.

-Alex Spektor