By Chuong Nguyen | April 15, 2010 12:00 AM
Although the KIN claims to be a “kindred spirit” of the Windows Phone family, there is enough different about the platform and the underlying UI to warrant a second look by Windows Mobile veterans and may excite those moving from feature phones or the Sidekick (MIcrosoft had acquired Sidekick parent company Danger). While the KIN shares the same core Windows Phone 7 architecture, the device is made for one purpose only, and that purpose is communications. Whether by voice, email, text, or social messaging, KIN asks us to share our life, thoughts, and memories with friends and family. It’s perhaps one of the first phones to recognize the importance of social networking and communications in the twenty-first century, but its single-minded focus–for better or worse–may put off a number of power users, which is a shame considering the power of the Windows Mobile architecture that runs underneath. With Windows Phone under its hood, is KIN a smart phone or the smartest feature phone in the room? We’ll begin this editorial by first examining what KIN does right and how simplicity is brilliant and we’ll finish with what’s missing and what could be improved.
The Phone for Modern Day Sociologist:
The Internet and cheap technologies around us have turned the masses into content producers as much as they are consumers. Hollywood studios, large New York publishing houses, and huge budgets are no longer required these days to create blogs that rival the circulation of a local newspaper and YouTube videos popular enough to make movie studios cringe at the viewership numbers. KIN recognizes that and taps into generation hip. Microsoft studied the behavior of phone users and understands the important features of the social generation–to create memories, to capture memories, and to share memories. With KIN, everyone can be a sociologist, psychology degrees and advanced research methodologies are no longer required. Just snap and share.
KIN comes in two flavors, KIN One and KIN Two. KIN One has a 5-megapixel camera with a super bright flash–Microsoft claims it’s up to 8 times brighter than anything on the market today–and 4 GB of memory. KIN Two has an 8-megapixel camera with the same bright flash, the ability to record videos up to 720p HD resolution, and up to 8 GB of storage memory.
Advanced Memory Management:
Despite what appears to be limited memory that is reminiscent of the first generation iPhones, the way that KIN handles storage is a lot more intelligent and takes the burden away from the users. All your pictures and videos are automatically synced to the cloud. This way, if your device gets full because you’ve gone off like a paparazzi snapping incriminating photos of friends and family, KIN will just leave a thumbnail of your older photos on your device. If you want to view those photos, KIN will then re-download the image from the cloud, making memory management virtual and seamless.
The KIN One, with its oddball square shape, and the KIN Two, with a more traditional form factor, are both made by Sharp, a company that was deeply entrenched in the swiveling-screened Sidekick. Sharp, once again, produced some great hardware, but to me the devices felt a little too light and hollow–though that doesn’t mean that the quality is bad. Both devices feel good in the hands, just a bit on the light side.
The KIN One looks like a squished version of the Palm Pre, and despite its unfamiliar and slightly odd looking facade, the One is very much comfortable to hold and use. It’s aimed at single-handed usability and Microsoft does a great job of creating a device with a UI that moves between the smallish touchscreen to the clicky keyboard.
The KIN perhaps is introducing users to a new paradigm for cut and paste by sharing with the KIN Loop. The Loop is a small green dot on the bottom center of the touchscreen display. Basically, you drag the content–which can be a picture, video, webclip–you want to share into the loop. Next, you scroll over to your Favorites screen–which is the third of three homescreens–that displays your prioritized and favorite contacts and drag whom you want to share your content with. Tap again on the loop to make sure everything is good to go, and your recipients can enjoy your information. Microsoft was smart enough to recognize that not everyone will have KIN devices, so your recipient will get this either as an SMS, MMS, or email, depending on what you specify when you share. The Loop similarly can be used to upload content to various social networking sites like Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook.
The KIN has three homescreens–a first screen shows feeds from your social networks. Rather than bombard you with feeds about “randoms”–people that you don’t care for, you can prioritize your friends so only the important news from important people will be displayed on this first screen–the KIN Spot. You can also drag webclips and updates on the KIN Spot to share in the Loop. The next screen–the Apps Screen–shown above, is your main screen where you can access settings, emails, browsers, phone, camera, and different menus on the KIN. It’s like your Programs menu for Windows Mobile users. And finally, there’s the mentioned Favorites screen where you have access to your favorite contacts. Tapping on the contact gives you options to email, call, or text the person.
If you’re deep into the menus or various apps, you can go back a screen by hitting the home button located at the bottom, or go back to the home screens by tapping and holding the home button.
The overall UI is very fluid, and to me the KIN interface seems a lot more fluid than what we’ve seen with Windows Phone 7 at this stage–to be fair though, Windows Phone 7 is still in Alpha. This is a bit peculiar as KIN is based on the underlying Windows Phone 7 OS. The boxes and live updates on KIN Spot are very reminiscent of the Metro UI on Windows Phone 7 as well.
The browser on KIN is described as utilizing technologies from Internet Explorer 6, 7, and 8. It’s a decent browsing experience, though plug-ins like Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight are not supported. The browser is similar to that on the Zune HD for those who are familiar with the Microsoft PMP.
Speaking of the Zune, Microsoft is saying that KIN is the first Windows Phone with the Zune music experience. There is a Zune music app for you to port your multimedia library or listen to music on the go with a $15 per month Zune Pass music subscription. Microsoft is saying that you can sync your KIN with the Zune desktop app on a PC and the company is developing a Mac client that will allow you sideload non-DRM protected music to your KIN; unfortunately a Mac Zune client is not available.
Synchronization, for non music content, is down wirelessly over the air to the KIN Studio, which is accessible on any web browser. This allows you to access the content on your phone–call logs, photos, videos, messages–and gives you the same experience that you have with your KIN, except on a larger screen driven by a mouse rather than the touch experience (unless you have a Tablet PC). On your PC or Mac, you can share photos with the Loop on the Studio from within your browser just as you could on your KIN. And even if you lose your phone, you can still have access to your vital information; memories will still be preserved and pictures will still be archived in a journal or diary-like environment.
The best part about the automatic synchronization with the cloud is that KIN will allow you to share information via the Loop super fast. Because pictures and videos are backed up, or synchronized, as soon as you take a photo or video–provided you have Internet connection via Vodafone or Verizon Wireless or through the WiFi on the device–you can share things just as fast. On other devices, users had to wait to upload photos or videos to a server–such as Twitpic or Facebook–and that would take a while depending on the size of the photo and the speed of the connection. With KIN, because things are already on the cloud on a server, all you have to do is share and the content gets moved from the server to Facebook or your friend’s email; you, the content creator, no longer have to sit within an app and wait for things to happen.
Also, as part of this super-connected cloud experience, KIN users will enjoy firmware updates or feature add-ons (perhaps for those features that are missing today that Microsoft may roll out later) over the air. Updates will be pushed out wirelessly to users, which is a nice touch.
KIN Studio is a private portal. Just because content is uploaded to the KIN Studio does not mean anyone can access it. You, the KIN user, will have a password and logon ID to protect your private pictures and photos. Keep in mind though, that since synchronization happens both ways, whatever you delete on the KIN Studio will happen on your KIN phone and the same is true the other way around.
Phones No Longer Holding Memories Hostage:
Microsoft did a lot of research on the target demographics and what they need their phones to do. For the tweens and users in their twenties–generation upload–photos and memories are no longer held hostage by their phones. The company found that only 30% of users actually get their photos of of their phones. With KIN and KIN Studio, it is now more easy than ever to get pictures off of your phones.
KIN is the Smartest Feature Phone:
KIN is, as Microsoft puts it, for generation upload. The device is great at sharing, but it isn’t a true smartphone despite its roots with Windows Phone. For one, KIN doesn’t have a calendar, though you can make notes to remind yourself of events and appointments as a workaround–many young people just scribble notes and jot things down rather than work with an Exchange calendar anyways. Two, KIN will not run third party apps, which is a shame considering that Microsoft could have tapped two potential development camps at this time–Windows Phone 7 developers with the XNA Studio or Silverlight development environments or the Zune apps. And finally, another omission that KIN makes is that the KIN One and KIN Two do not come with any instant messaging clients, which is rather peculiar considering that the demographics that Microsoft is targeting is the hyper-connected generation. Also, this glaring omission may turn off former Sidekick users from yore as Danger had always bundled a few popular IM protocols. It looks like the decision here perhaps is stemming from the evolution between the private sharing between two parties to the public sharing that is part of social networking.
For now, Microsoft is saying that the company can potentially add these features in the future via an OTA upgrade. Unfortunately, the platform would still be closed in the sense that we won’t be seeing any third-party apps, at least for the time being.
Nothing is Impossible:
In talking with a few Microsoft representatives, we learned that the possibility exists for certain KIN features to possibly migrate to Windows Phone and that maybe some Windows Phone features could make their way to KIN. As it stands, both Windows Phone 7 and KIN aim to target the consumer segment, with Windows Phone 7 aiming more at the prosumer market. There exists a slight gap between the two platforms for the person who likes to share, but needs the power of Windows Phone 7 or want more games and apps. To a certain degree, Microsoft is already creating Windows Phone 7 to embody basic elements of KIN’s auto-update features–the Photos hub on Windows Phone 7 automatically grabs Facebook pictures, for instance, in the background to keep your Facebook albums up to date on your device.
Still, more can be done on the sharing side with Windows Phone 7, but Microsoft may be creating separate demographics with a good strategy–Windows Mobile had tried to be everything for everyone with limited success and Microsoft is seemingly adopting the Apple way of engineering–to release device’s with limited features that excel at what they do. For that, KIN is about communicating–it’s not about competing with the App Store nor is it about games and mobile entertainment. And KIN excels at communicating–through traditional voice, SMS, and SMS, as well as through email, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever social networking gets thrown at it.
Power users will still turn to Windows Phone 7 or a competing smartphone OS, but for those migrating from feature phones, Sidekicks, or those who need their phones to capture a decent image and get that image off of their camera to their PCs, KIN makes it easy. It promises to be a sociologist’s tool, a social networking champ, and a means to share–all of which it succeeds in doing. For those trapped between KIN and Windows Phone 7, more can be better, but Microsoft is playing its cards at simplicity, which I think is a smart strategy. If Windows Mobile was about serving every need of every user, then the new mobile strategy at Microsoft–which includes KIN and Windows Phone–is about finding a particular demographic and devising a way to servicing their needs best. For KIN, it’s about memories and experiences, both in the needs and the way users use their KIN One or KIN Two phone. Microsoft has a winner for those in their teens and twenties, but that reach also extends to moms–who better to capture and share life’s precious moments than doting parents.
Pricing and Availability:
Verizon Wireless has not announced device or data plan pricing at the launch of the KIN. The KIN One and KIN Two will be available in May from Verizon Wireless and in the second half of the year from Vodafone for international users. For the hyper-connected experience, I think Microsoft had chosen wisely with Verizon Wireless as an initial launch partner–the carrier’s reliable and robust 3G network makes it easy to connect and share.