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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Death of the Kin - proof point that mobile social networking aggregation doesn't work

Goodbye Microsoft Kin, the so-called social network phone.

I maintain that one of the biggest myths in the mobile industry at present, is that users want to have some sort of master-app or UI to aggregate their various social networking and messaging experiences.

It's another classic case of technologists thinking that "convergence" is elegant and therefore cool, while actual user psychology is completely the opposite - divergence is cool, exclusive and personalised.

Convergence and standardisation in underlying enablers can be good, as long as they don't get in the way. Having (national) standards for electrical sockets is handy. Having a combined toaster and dishwasher, because they can share the same physical footprint, single power outlet and a common UI "look and feel" isn't.

For mobile social networking, I can see the world polarising into two extremes:

  • Dedicated client or web page, run by the specific service. So either a Facebook app, or Facebook.com rendering well on the handset browser, depending on the specific device/OS. This is always going to be the best-performing version, as it comes from the people best-able to integrate and customise the experience - and who get the customer data and feedback, and are thus able to tune it progressively.
  • Or, at the other extreme, very low-end phones getting status updates via SMS / MMS. Lowest-common denominator, doesn't need a data plan or 3G, should work out-of-the box for billions of people.
I'm really not convinced by all the other approaches in the middle. Home-screen aggregation and widgets like MotoBlur or some of the Nokia UIs or Windows 7 demos? I'm not sure they work that well, especially when notifications come through rapidly, or where the new "service du jour" isn't represented for 6 months after it becomes cool. Maybe some of the BONDI / WAC widgets will improve things, but I'm not convinced yet.

Operator-branded front ends to social networks? Do they add or subtract from the experience of "the real thing"? Maybe if there's something really special involving a mashup of operator and social-network APIs, I'll believe - paying for in-app microcredits through the carrier billing system perhaps - or automating SMS reminders for events.

Phonebook enhancements to show statuses and presence? Unconvincing - and risks de-valuing the proper user experience. My Facebook status is intended to be seen *in context* with the rest of my wall & posts, not abstracted as a solo item. If I decide to federate bits of my social world, I want it to be on *my* terms. Plus, as I've written before, the phonebook or contact list is a lousy repository for all your affiliations that are not people (events, groups etc). IMS RCS? You probably know my views - and I'm putting the final touches to my report on it, if you don't.

I'll make an exception for dedicated devices like the various INQ phones, which clearly have a lot of thought and collaboration involved. But they too will need to have a way to compete with the "updateability" of web pages and dedicated apps - something I suspect that the company's move towards Android reflects.

The short life and brutal death of the Kin is probably a reflection of other factors as well - notably pricing and the imminence of Windows 7 phones. But it is a salutary lesson on the concept of "social value" inherent in fragmented communications experiences. Device vendors and operators need to learn when convergence and "unified XYZ" is appropriate - and when it diminishes utility and flexibility.

In an era of multi-tasking, multi-channel, multi-device users, it surprises me that we keep seeing the same monochrome engineering-type view that combining applications or services must always be good.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree, my linkedin list is different from my facebook, and my work email is different from either of those.

There are places where convergence might make sense: e.g. choosing to speak(by phone) with a friend who's fb status is a cry for help.
or adding a contact to linkedin after a phonecall.

But these are edge cases and can probably be handled by the individual apps.

Frank Meehan said...

Hi Dean,

Thanks for the comments on INQ. I totally agree with your views. We've been in this social on mobile game longer than most, and customers consistently say that they do NOT want all their sites mashed up - it really is a myth - and is completely backed up by people ignoring the various aggregators that have appeared on mobiles. And yes, coding on Android helps us solve a lot of things, but the new Brew Mobile Platform allows that as well. Lot's of options, but most important is not to second guess the user behaviour wrongly...
Frank Meehan
Founder & CEO, INQ Mobile

Dean Bubley said...


Many thanks for your feedback, much appreciated.

Glad to hear it's not just me that's doubting these "all mashed together" interfaces.

It amazes me how much value (social or otherwise) is destroyed by ill thought-out attempts at convergence. Usually by engineers who enjoy second-guessing end users, yes.

Worst example was SMS-to-your-TV set as part of quadplay solutions pitched by some vendors. A good % of the value of SMS is its privacy, so putting it on a 40" plasma screen isn't wise....