Microsoft's New Phone? It's Not Pink, But Kin Is All About Social Networking

Last Updated Apr 12, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

For some time there have been rumors about the new Microsoft phone, code-named Pink. Today the company showed off what it's had up its sleeve: not one, but two new phones. Contrary to expectations, they're not explicitly designed as Apple (AAPL) iPhone or Google (GOOG) Android killers. Instead, Microsoft, working with Verizon (VZ), has introduced a new brand called Kin that aims to turn handsets into social networking devices. Will it be successful? No way to know, but this is one of the bolder re-imaginings of a product category you will find and shows how many risks the people in Redmond are now willing to take.

The device comes out of the entertainment division, which makes far more sense than tying it to the operating system people. And, as seems to be happening more often with the company, Microsoft seems focused not on technology, but what people do with it. If you've ever watched a teenager use a cell phone or laptop, the basic idea is pretty smart. Rather than assume that they want to use devices they way their parents do, Microsoft did a lot of research and came up with results that border on true hipness.

The phone is a way to share. Take a picture, drag it to people on your contact list, and hit send to share. Both Kin One and Kin Two (even that is smart, hooking into subconscious memories of The Cat in the Hat and Things One and Two) have QWERTY keyboards for texting, which is much of what younger people do with phones; voice is secondary. The interface is touch-driven with either mono or stereo speakers to share music (rather than splitting one pair of headphones). Both have cameras, with the bigger Kin Two boasting 8 megapixel resolution and HD video. You can download music directly or sync with a computer with an application that makes you think it's designed to work with a full size computer display with touch screen. In fact, from the description, it sounds like videos and images sit online and are available from any computer, though it's not exactly clear. An update on social networks, including built-in support for Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, expands upon texting and helps round out the social network integration in a way that should make Google (GOOG) send Buzz back to wherever it came from.

There are some nastier edges, however. The video about using the phone to share pictures shows a young man holding a Kin under his t-shirt and taking a photo with built-in flash. It reads like a not-so-subtle reference to sexting, or sending nude photos to others. Some of the marketing videos -- beautifully and effectively done, I'll note -- make heavy use of emotional manipulation, like the "When one door closes another opens. Goodbye heartache" update that the users is posting. It's marketing as promises of sex, love, and friendship ... which, to be fair, is probably the subtext of social networking at that age. But still, disturbing when you see companies willing to use such easy emotional buttons for the young.

Will this work? It's hard to say. I think the marketing may almost be too smart and slick, off-putting to the target audience. It's like middle-aged people asking those in their early 30s to make them relevant to teens. Getting the brand to live independent of the Microsoft name will be critical. But when you're cornered, trying to politely ease your way out is futile.

Image courtesy of Microsoft

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.