Microsoft’s Consumer Groundhog Day

In so many respects, Microsoft has become its worst enemy. Just consider what’s happening with its overlapping, somewhat contradictory moves with Kin and Windows Phone 7 Series (WP7S).

The two efforts overlap because they both are targeted at consumer demographics. They conflict because they’re built on different platforms. For observers, and presumably consumers, the result is cognitive dissonance, particularly as it pertains to understanding what Microsoft thinks consumers should buy.

Should Microsoft be playing to its weakness, tackling Apple and the iPhone on its own consumer-cool turf? It doesn’t seem wise, does it? Microsoft’s consumer brand isn’t exactly imposing. Very few people not employed directly or indirectly by the company could argue, with a straight face, that Microsoft has an intrinsic feel for the consumer zeitgeist.

Microsoft doesn’t suffer only from an errant appreciation of consumer sensibilities, though that problem is irrefutable. It also is afflicted by a lack of corporate self-awareness: It doesn’t know that it doesn’t know about consumers.

As Microsoft’s executives took to the stage and to the airwaves to tout Kin, I was alternately amused and appalled at how maladroit they seemed in attempting to connect with the social-networking youth market that they perceive as Kin’s sweet spot. Microsoft seemed an aging, leering, out-of-touch lothario hitting a dance club for the first time in decades, trying too hard to sell itself to an audience with which it does not have a natural affinity.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the Kin will find a niche, one big enough to satisfy its corporate masters. But Microsoft’s past performance and initial portents aren’t auspicious.

Meanwhile, I wonder, as do others, about whether Microsoft’s fixation on getting back in the good graces of mobile consumers might cost it whatever patronage it retains in the mobile enterprise. That’s a market segment Microsoft ought to understand, one in which it can leverage assets and strengths many of its competitors don’t possess. But the company’s commitment has wavered, it has failed to execute too many times with diminishing returns from successive iterations of Microsoft Windows Mobile, and now the focus seems completely lost.

That can only be good news for RIM, which, like Microsoft, has a difficult time figuring out the mobile-consumer space and how the younger generation swings. Unlike Microsoft, though, RIM is disinclined to surrender a mobile bird in the hand for one in the bush.

There’s also a good chance that Google is watching intently as Microsoft’s middle-age crisis plays out. Google has enterprise ambitions that encompass mobility and smartphones, and it has a growing ecosystem that can help it exploit chinks in the Microsoft armor.

With the Kin and Windows Phone 7 Series moves, Microsoft might think it has arrested its chronic mobile decline.

But what are they thinking? I realize past performance isn’t a guarantee of future results, but what has changed at Microsoft to lead its executive team (or us) to believe that somehow this time, in this particular foray into the consumer realm, it will be different?

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