Microsoft/Danger’s Sidekick Tech Any Threat to iPhone?

Just a few quick thoughts on the announcement that Microsoft is acquiring Danger, maker of the Sidekick series of smartphones:

(1) As Backstage readers may recall, I was an avid Sidekick user during the Sidekick II and Sidekick 3 days. With very few reservations, I loved the Sidekicks. Their keyboards were great. Their instant messaging, web browsing, and phone features were great. And they were fun to use.

(2) I struggled with whether to stop using the Sidekick 3 when the iPhone came out, and was not 100% satisfied with the iPhone as a replacement. The Sidekick 3 was a considerably better input device; the iPhone a substantially better output device. To this day, I still think that the Sidekick’s keyboard made me 20 times more efficient at typing, and had more real-world utility as a light business device than the iPhone does—mostly because of the keyboard, but also because of the robust instant messaging, which iPhone still has not come close to matching.

(3) Following the iPhone’s release, it’s become very apparent that Danger had little to no idea how to transition past the Sidekick 2 into fourth-generation products. The Sidekick 3 had basically turned out to be a Sidekick 2 with Bluetooth, a better camera, an SD card slot and a simple media player. Danger’s next products tried a few different avenues, such as Sidekick 3 minus Bluetooth and camera (ID), Sidekick 3 plus higher-resolution display (LX), and Sidekick 3 plus different casing (Slide). None was a breakthrough, and none generated the buzz of past Sidekicks, say nothing of the iPhone—they all actually looked really outdated by comparison. Danger’s lack of forward momentum began to make sense when its founders were revealed to have left the company to start Android, a venture Google purchased and built into a widely-discussed open mobile phone platform.

(4) Now Microsoft’s purchased Danger, and is folding the unit into the gaming and media device unit responsible for the Xbox and Zune. Sure, this could easily be written off as a “who cares” purchase of a has-been smartphone developer by a monolithic entity that doesn’t have a great track record of inspiring innovation. But I have to wonder whether Danger, whether through patents or some key remaining employees, still has some real value to Microsoft, which has developed plenty of versions of its Windows Mobile platform but failed to win over the youth market that Danger captivated with Sidekicks. In a perfect acquisition, Danger’s friendly front end UI and cool device designs could make Windows Mobile applications a real rival for the iPhone’s, a device generation from now.

(5) But to be realistic, the iPhone’s touch interface, automatic screen reorientation, superior multimedia capabilities, and soon-to-be-sort-of-open development environment don’t leave Danger with much to brag about. Whatever ease of use the Sidekick once had, the iPhone has trumped, except where the keyboard and instant messaging stuff is concerned—and did Microsoft really need to buy the company for that? Or is it Danger’s backend technology and servers, which handled pre-processing of web and other data to boost GPRS- and EDGE-era Sidekick data speeds? Or Danger’s near-million subscribers? Or something else?

Sidekick fans, feel free to weigh in. I’d be curious to hear what you think of this deal.

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