Social Phones: Bridging the Gap Between Smartphones and Traditional Mobile

What do you use your phone for? If you're like a lot of people, social networking is near the top of the list. A comScore survey conducted last year in Europe found that nearly a third of mobile social users used their phones for social networking to the exclusion of all other mobile content. Yet most smartphones go far beyond social networking, offering up a bevy of secondary features that quickly bring the price tags into the $200-$300 range. Now, Microsoft and Nokia are bringing to market a series of "social phones" that try to keep the networking but ditch the sticker shock.

In April, Microsoft announced two new phones, the KIN ONE and KIN TWO. Both phones are more like traditional feature-based mobile phones than their larger, fancier smartphone cousins. Although their polished interfaces, down-played phone functionality, and touchscreens make them seem like smartphones, missing are the app stores and free-range extensibility that has become synonymous with iPhones and Android-based phones.

Instead, the KIN phones give users access to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter directly through the phone's normal interface, which can also be customized with RSS feed updates and other personal touches. Other features include a web browser, multimedia recording capabilities, and the ability to quickly share content through a feature called the Spot. The KINs also store photos, videos, logs, and text messages through a cloud service called KIN Studio, which users can access separately from the phone.

Meanwhile, Nokia is hitting the streets with its own social phone. The Nokia C3 is a more traditional phone that features integrated social networking updates through Twitter, Facebook, and other services. Although the C3 lacks 3G functionality, a touchscreen, and other smartphone amenities that the KIN phones retained, it does feature Wi-Fi access.

According to analyst Peggy Ann Salz of MSearchGroove, a social emphasis on phones makes sense for a number of reasons. "What are we doing with our phones? We're social networking," says Salz. "We have these reams of reports, this raft of information that shows us that we use our telephones to connect with what matters to us most. It makes sense to make that the center of the mobile experience."

Salz also points out that the KIN phones and C3 aren't the first phones to go down the social path: London-based mobile manufacturer INQ brought its own social mobile phone to market more than a year before Microsoft and Nokia. The INQ Chat 3G lets users follow Facebook and Twitter updates through its contact list, while also featuring built-in Skype support and the ability to connect the phone to a laptop to have it serve as a wireless modem.

So why would consumers be interested in social phones when a wide array of smartphones are already on the market? Price could be a major factor. The KIN phones are priced at $49.99 and $99.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate, a far cry from the hefty price tags of the leading smartphones. Salz also thinks the phones will appeal to younger users without credit cards, who may not be able to interact with traditional app stores.

So far, reactions to the KIN phones have been mixed. AOL-owned technology blog Engadget praised the device's concept and cloud-based storage but balked at the fact that the device required users to purchase the same costly service plan needed for a more robust Droid smartphone. Other tech sites delivered similar reviews, giving the device accolades for its design and concept while faulting the specifics of its implementation.

Salz is impressed with the notion of social phones, but she cautions that it shouldn't be taken as the be-all, end-all of feature phones. "I don't know that [social features] will be the differentiator," she says. "If it were the differentiator, then you have other phones [released] just a year ago that have this at the center of what they're about."

Still, Salz thinks the phones' focus on user behavior is a step in the right direction. "The industry tends to think that technology is a differentiator," she says. "When
actually, it's a very clear focus on the consumer and an alignment with consumer behavior that's the differentiator."


Editor's Note: Since this story was published, and just a few short months after the phones were launched, Microsoft has killed the Kin phones.