Kin and Android: A tale of two phones

Why is it that Google thrives in the Internet-connected and mobile world, while Microsoft still can't find success? A look at the fates of Microsoft's failed Kin phone and thriving phones based on Google's Android operating system provides some insight.

Interestingly, the Kin and Android have their roots in technology created by the same person, Andy Rubin. Rubin co-founded a company called Danger, which developed the groundbreaking Sidekick phone. Rubin ended up leaving Danger in 2004. In 2008, Microsoft, looking to jump-start its struggling mobile business, bought Danger for a reported $500 million. The idea was to build a Microsoft phone based on the Sidekick.

And for Microsoft, that's where the troubles began. The project to have Danger develop a new Microsoft phone was initially labeled "Pink" inside Microsoft, and according to a number of reports, it very quickly became enmeshed in Microsoft politics and infighting. First, Pink was put in Microsoft's Premium Mobile Experiences (PMX) division, but then after a power struggle, was shifted to Microsoft's Windows Phone Division.

The Sidekick was based on Java, but once Pink ended up at the Windows Phone Division, Microsoft decided that Pink (eventually called Kin) would have to run a Microsoft operating system instead. Initially, reports say, the plan was to have it run Windows Phone 7. But Windows Phone 7 was delayed, and Microsoft didn't want to delay the launch of the Kin. So instead, Kin was based on the older Microsoft mobile operating system, Windows CE.

With all the political infighting, the Kin lost its way. In a smartphone world dominated by phones that run apps, it ran no apps. It was a phone designed for those interested primarily in social networking, yet had poor Twitter support and no instant messaging client. It was as expensive as more powerful phones, and required a costly monthly service contract. In about the only smart move Microsoft made concerning the Kin, it killed the phone after less than two months.

Now let's take a look at how Google handled another Rubin creation, Android. After leaving Danger, Rubin eventually started a company called Android, with the purpose of developing a smartphone operating system based on Linux. In 2005, Google bought Android, and put Rubin in charge of the project to launch an open-source, Google-created operating system to be called Android. Rubin became director of mobile platforms at Google, and is currently vice president of engineering.

There was no drama during Android development, no political infighting, no changing the basic idea of what Android was supposed to be. Rather than forcing Android to use some kind of Google-proprietary software, Android was left open source. As a way to make sure there would be enough apps available for it, back in 2007, Google launched the Android Developer Challenge, which offered $10 million to developers who built the best Android apps.

The work paid off: Android is now the fastest-growing smartphone operating system, with 13% of the market. Between February and March of this year, it grew 4%, while RIM's, Apple's and Microsoft's share of the market all shrank. By the end of July, there are expected to be 100,000 Android apps available.

The lessons here are fairly obvious. Politics and infighting -- as well as a decision that it had to run a Microsoft-specific operating system, even though that operating system was an old one -- doomed the Kin. At Google, meanwhile, the company allowed a brilliant engineer to do his work.

What does this say about the futures of Microsoft and Google? If Microsoft can't figure out a way to cut down on bureaucracy and infighting, it will be hard-pressed to beat Google in the long term. We'll have to wait and see whether Microsoft learned any lessons from its development, launch and killing of the Kin.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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