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Hands-on First Impressions of Microsoft's Kin Phones

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Microsoft (s MSFT) today launched a line-up of mobile devices called Kin. Built by Sharp and going on sale through Verizon Wireless (s vz) starting next month, the phones are targeted at young people — mostly teenagers — and are the handiwork of members of the Danger team, which Microsoft acquired in February 2008 for $500 million.

I attended the Kin launch largely because I was curious as to what Microsoft’s response to the Apple-Android (s aapl) (s goog) assault on the smartphone market would look like. After all, it’s not like anyone will be able to buy a Microsoft-branded Windows Phone anytime soon. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was curious — the event was packed to the gills. So like everyone else there, I gave the first two models to be launched — the Kin One and Kin Two — a try, only to find myself quickly overwhelmed by all the things taking place on the screen.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me start by accentuating the positive: The two devices are extremely well built and are exceptionally fast, with touchscreens that are positively spritely compared to their Android-based rivals. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the company has done a great job of cobbling together solid hardware that’s chock-full of features. The Kin Two in particular felt nice and sturdy; its slide-out keyboard was comfortable and its overall look was as appealing as the Palm Pre. OK that last bit was a joke, but it does look very much like the Palm (s palm) device.

Marry that hardware to a superb 3G network like Verizon’s and you are in for a great experience, especially when accessing Internet-based services, whether they be photos, videos or contacts. Snapping photos or videos and loading them to the web using the Kin phones is dead simple.

Another excellent feature of the Kin phones is their tight integration with Microsoft’s Zune Music Service. Accessing music through the service was a totally mind-blowing experience — fast, responsive and easy to use. Whether that’s due to Verizon’s network or some under-the-hood trickery, I don’t know, but in the future I will expect all music services to be as good as this one.

Unfortunately all this goodness doesn’t add up to a great phone, because the user experience was cluttered and confusing. The opening screen, which is a grid divided into squares, is so busy it reminds me of Times Square on a Friday night.

Microsoft’s Kin can be divided into three components — the Loop, the Spot and the Studio. The Loop is essentially a social aggregation service that is very much like Motorola’s Blur except a tad more polished. It allows you to get updates from Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.

And as with the Moto Blur, it’s a good idea but one that causes visual dissonance — which is even more profound if you’ve ever experienced the picture-perfect serenity of an iPhone OS-based device. The lack of visual polish extends to the Spot, a sharing service that allows you to share  photos, texts and web pages with almost anyone by simply dragging them to a “spot” on your phone.

Again, a great idea, but one that needs some spit and polish.

Photo of Kin Studio By Microsoft

The most stunning part of the package is the Kin Studio. I absolutely love this feature, which offers a visually delighful way to save everything you’ve created on the phone to the Internet and then access it from any web browser. Use it in concert with a Facebook account and suddenly you have a whole new way of managing information. If Microsoft is smart, it’ll turn this into a freestanding service. Think of this as Microsoft’s version of Apple’s MobileMe, albeit one that works with all devices, regardless of their operating environments.

As you might have guessed by now, there’s a lot I like about the Kin line of phones and yet they left me feeling as satisfyied as I do after eating a quick Chinese meal at the food court. I found the overall experience to lack a certain coherence, and ironically I think the problem with the Kin line as it stands now can be summed up by this bit from the Microsoft press release:

With KIN, social networking is built into the fabric of the phone. KIN has a fun, simple interface, which is designed to help people publish the magazine of their life by making the people and stuff they love the focus rather than menus and icons.

Exactly — it’s trying to do too many things at once. And in the process, it’s defying what has become standard user behavior among young people: trying and buying applications. As AdMob CEO Omar Hamoui once told me: Apps are the new entertainment. From that perspective, Microsoft may have missed a step here, especially given its odds. Indeed, at least one analyst suggests that nearly 31 percent of American teenagers want an iPhone in “the next six months, up from 22% last fall and nearly double the 16% who wanted one a year ago.” From Fortune:

“We believe that the teen demographic is a critical component of long-term growth in the digital music and mobile markets,” wrote Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster. “And Apple is taking its leading position in music and mobile markets.”

Well the good news is that Microsoft is at least is playing in the right market now.

31 Responses to “Hands-on First Impressions of Microsoft's Kin Phones”

  1. I have a ? I recently bought this phone I like it but I found it b lack on basic things such as it doesn’t let me go back to my calls and see how many minutes I talked and also I can’t send videos stored already in da library, can’t delete ringtones
    Or record sounds I like this phone but I find it hard to Manage

  2. racqueteer

    Leave it to Microsoft to further their John Hodgman street-cred with a device aimed at teenagers that has no 3rd-party apps, is small when big is coming back in fashion, and has a noisy and cluttered interface that looks like Yahoo! circa 2005.

    Throw a rock from Microsoft’s Redmond HQ and you’ll hit HTC, the company that’s emerging as the best manufacturer in the smartphone market, and a company that actually understands their market. Their new EVO is a beauty.

  3. Chris K

    Also would carry calendar info and have the features of a typical cheap cellphone, but interface would be much better and you could customize it anyway you wanted to in order to fit how used the thing ( in lieu of always going through tedious menus.)

    Earth to cellphone makers! How come this phone doesn’t exist yet? I don’t even need wi-fi nor 3g.

  4. Chris K

    IF you need a data plan then it seems like a fail to me.

    That’s because there is an iPhone at the $100 pricepoint and the expensive part of the iPhone is the plan not so much the phone.

    It seems to me a phone like this Kin needs to come in cheap and be able to not have a data plan.

    Personally I would love it if I could get a cheap cellphone that could sync with addressbook and iPhoto in an Apple like fashion and let me download whatever ring tones I wanted to after being hacked in GarageBand.

    Possibly also do music and video, but really not necessary. If I want that I get a Touch or Zune or something. This way the price is kept cheap.

  5. I think its a smart move. Teens can always get their app kick with an ipod touch and use a Kin to for phone conversations, texting, facebook, email, photos, music, web browsing, etc. It has to be cheap..

  6. The outlook of the phone is not impressive, certainly do not look smart either. I think they need to think seriously on user interface. We dont want thing look like PC or Windows. iPhone successfully redefine the user experience of its touch UI and screen. It make us feel sleek and fun to have the device. We dont want another phone look like Palm or Motorola.

  7. Ken Jackson

    The Technorati love the iPhone, and they should, its a great device. But its only on ATT and its pricey (the data plan is expensive).

    Go to your local high school lunch spots and you’ll see a few kids with an iPhone or Droid. But you’ll see a ton of kids with Samsung Raves and LG EnVs and Samsung Intesitys.

    This phone attacks that market. Now why does MS care about this market? Kin Studio. If MS can win you on the service, guess which phone you buy when you can afford the full smartphone?

    History will tell us if it was a smart move, but I don’t think there’s much downside to it. And I hardly think it really complicates their phone story, since most people don’t pay attention to it, and those people who say “they’ve confused it” are the only ones who really care (and they know this stuff inside and out anyways).

    • The reason they buy those phones is because a monthly data plan costs almost as much as the voice plan. Kins require data plans, making this both uncompetitive for a cheap phone, and uncompetitive vs a smartphone.

  8. blueboy

    I think we’re missing the point. This is not a smartphone. It won’t and isn’t trying to compete with the iPhone. WP7 will compete with the iPhone. The Kin is for teens. Think about it, for a teen .. “wish I could by an iPhone, but my parents thinks it’s to expensive, so I’ll get the Kin.” I’ve noticed a lot of youth have Blackberries because the iPhone platform is too expensive. They can pretty much get what they need from the Blackberry which has Facebook and text messaging. The Kin takes it a big step further by unifying the social network front and adding a good camera plus full backup online. Honestly, if it’s affordable (and I think it’s meant to be), this is more or less a perfect phone for my kids. I can give them a phone, social networking, mp3 player and camera (5 to 8 megapixel is great by the way) in one device. Honestly, if it works, the Kin might outsell WP7 without really interfering with its market which is not the same. eg. Microsoft Works vs Microsoft Office!!!

  9. The real question in the potential success of this phone will be what the data plan costs. Will it be able to have a lower cost data plan than a traditional smart phone?

    Will Kin be in a segment with all Android devices, iPhone, WebOS, and Windows Phone 7, or will it be up against devices like the EnV or Chocolate?

  10. I agree… there is little room for a social networking centric device/ or a device that does one thing well, in the age of the appstore.

    While you find the interface cluttered… is it possible that the addressable market for the KIN- the 16 somethings- find it perfectly fine.

    • I disagree. I think if priced well, Kin will rock. It’s just another philosophy. They figured they couldn’t beat Apple at their game so they chose another road. That’s smart and it will pay off, slowly but surely. Because the truth of the matter is, no one will out-play Apple in the current game. So if you’re Microsoft, you want to rewrite the rule. At least, it’ll get to own a good market share. Apple? They’ll keep striving anyway and leading the way because the iPhone is far to entrenched in the public mind (+ you have the iPod touch and the iPad). The big loser here could be Google. Apple and Microsoft will be leader in their respective games – the app-centric for Apple and the task-centric for Microsoft. What room does this leave to Google, who just copy Apple? I mean you can’t out run the leading train by going after it on the same rails!!! They’ll end up like Palm in the smartphone business. I also think, even RIM is in trouble now. BIG TROUBLE.

  11. Katie Mansfield

    The Kin phone is a complete failure.

    While smartphones like Android and iPhone are famous for having apps, every basic phone can actually run apps. Most of the cheapest “feature phones” run apps based on BREW or JAVA.

    Well, with Microsoft Kin, we have the first phone that can run no apps at all. Not only that, but the most basic features are missing. Microsoft Kin has no calendar. Microsoft Kin cannot instant message, despite its claimed target market of the youth. Microsoft will be unable to sell any of these phones.

    • Katie — interesting (and somewhat harsh) observation. I agree on the calendar — which is a bit of a fail. Nevertheless I am going to post my further thoughts on Kin later this week — just too much going on and there wasn’t enough time to play with the device. Appreciate your comment.

    • Tom

      Maybe I am getting old …. finally and not getting what UI young people want. To an old fart like me, this is not as much fun as an iPhone which can be pimped out with Apps. But then that is just me.

  12. Yuvamani

    “in the process, it’s defying what has become standard user behavior among young people: trying and buying applications”

    Standard behavior has to do with what is available in the market, And the products in the market are app centric. Want to use social network X, get the . In fact before iPad and iBooks if you wanted to read book x. You got . Now that iPhone and iPad have a reader built in, people (and more importantly publishers) will gravitate to being content than being an app (not for everything, but most things).

    Both “Kin” and the Windows Phone 7 are trying to get away from the app silos and move into a unified task silo. It is pretty interesting, if nothing else.

    I am not too sure of the absence of games though… games demand a silo of their own.

  13. I think this will work if its cheap, and
    I think the zune pass should be built into the verizon phone bill to make it easy on the parents. if them copy the rapsidy plan of 9.99 all you can eat plan that would keep the kids off the pirate sites and make the parents sleep better at night…

  14. Firstly, if ever I form a new team, I’m calling it the “Danger team.”

    The Kin smartphones sound pretty good, actually. Thanks for the quick, in-depth review. And yet…

    Microsoft has such a powerful line-up, from software to gaming to Zune to OS, but I”ve long thought they won’t survive the coming smartphone age. It’s that whole innovator’s dilemma thing. Virtually all Microsoft’s money comes from OS and Office and everything they do, deliberately or not, flows from trying to sustain the unsustainable.