Microsoft’s engineers and executives spent two years creating a new line of smartphones with playful names that sounded like creatures straight out of “The Cat in the Hat” — Kin One and Kin Two. Stylish designs, an emphasis on flashy social-networking features and an all-out marketing blitz were meant to prove that Microsoft could build the right product at the right time for the finickiest customers — gossiping youngsters with gadget skills. But last week, less than two months after the Kins arrived in stores, Microsoft said it would kill the products.
“That’s a record-breaking quick end to a product, as far as I am concerned,” said Michael Cronan, a designer who helped drive the branding of products like Kindle for Amazon and TiVo. “It did seem like a big mistake on their part.”
The Kins’ flop adds to a long list of products — from watches to music players — that have plagued Microsoft’s consumer division, while its business group has suffered as well through less-than-successful offerings like Windows Vista and Windows for tablet computers.
In particular, the Kin debacle is a reflection of Microsoft’s struggle to deliver what the younger generation of technology-obsessed consumers wants. From hand-held products to business software, Microsoft seems behind the times.
Part of its problem may be that its ability to intrigue and attract software developers is also waning, which threatens its ability to steer markets over the long term. When it comes to electronic devices, people writing software have turned their attention to platforms from Apple and Google.
Meanwhile, young technology companies today rely on free, open-source business software rather than Microsoft’s products, so young students, soon to be looking for jobs, have embraced open-source software as well.
“Microsoft is totally off the radar of the cool, hip, cutting-edge software developers,” said Tim O’Reilly, who publishes a popular line of software development guides.
“And they are largely out of the consciousness of your average developer.”
The Xbox 360 gaming console and its complementary online services have been a rare hit with consumers. Still, being hip matters only so much for Microsoft, whose profits remain the envy of the business world. Microsoft’s software like Windows and Office remain the dominant standard around the world and afford the company an ability to experiment wherever it pleases.
“When you look at the overall numbers and who buys and uses our products, I think our track record is pretty good with all demographics,” said Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s head of communications. “We really do think about serving billions of people and are on a playing field that nobody else in the industry is.”
In May, Microsoft announced a shake-up of its consumer and entertainment division with the retirement this fall of the group’s head, Robert J. Bach, and the departure of an important designer, J Allard.
Steven A. Ballmer, the company’s chief executive, now has the heads of the main consumer and entertainment-oriented products reporting directly to him. While Mr. Ballmer has been praised for increasing Microsoft’s main, old-line businesses, he has come under increasing fire for failing to read changing trends in the market and capitalize on them.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Microsoft’s come-from-behind strategy in the consumer device market.
In 2008, Microsoft acquired a start-up, Danger, that had built popular mobile phone software, hoping that technology would revitalize its waning phone software business. But Microsoft stumbled as it took longer than expected to create a new product with the technology. In April, Microsoft finally introduced the fruits of this labor when it unveiled the Kin phones.
In contrast, Google, a chief Microsoft rival, also bought a mobile technology start-up — Android. Both Android and Danger were co-founded by Andy Rubin, who joined Google.
Google has since turned the Android software into the foundation of a fast-growing mobile phone empire with carriers all over the world releasing products that use the technology.
Microsoft, however, has reassigned the Kin development team and put them to work on Windows Phone 7, yet another mobile phone platform, expected later this year.
“For developers, mobile is what’s hip now, and there are two platforms that matter — Apple and Android,” Mr. O’Reilly said.
The list of Microsoft’s consumer product slip-ups grows each year. Its line of intelligent watches — come and gone — often ends up as the butt of jokes, as do its tablet PC software products, the poor-selling Windows Vista operating system and the ignored Zune music player. The company also canceled its Courier tablet PC project shortly after the Apple iPad tablet went into stores.
Microsoft employees were dismayed when they anonymously visited Verizon stores and discovered that employees for the carrier were reluctant to sell the Kin, said a Microsoft executive close to the Kin project. Verizon, the only carrier behind the Kin, tended to promote phones running Google’s Android software.
“It was killed abruptly because no one was buying it and there no was no credible reason to believe anyone would,” this person said.
Fewer than 10,000 Kins were sold.
Mr. O’Reilly said the quick cancellation of the Kin may demonstrate that Microsoft has finally seen the depth of its woes when it comes to attracting consumers and younger audiences.
“This should be seen as a success for them,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “They grew fat and happy, but are now waking up to their different competitive position.”
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