Oh, KIN. We hardly knew you. But before anyone sheds too many a tear, I'd like to remind you--or, more likely, inform you for the first time--that there are some good things going on with KIN. And if the Windows Phone team is as smart as I think they are, they'll do well to make sure that the best of those KIN features makes their way to Windows Phone 7 as quickly as possible.
Before we get to that, however, I'd like to briefly explain why it is that KIN failed. See, I think KIN failed in an epic, almost biblical fashion for purely non-technical reasons. In fact, the chief two failure points for this phone were financial in my opinion.
First, I have to point a finger at Verizon Wireless, which decided to price the not-a-smart-phone KIN as if it were a smart phone, creating a monthly financial gulf between what made sense (about $40 a month for voice + text + data) and the monthly plan they actually created (about $80 a month). That was dumb, and greedy, and while most consumers wouldn't know a decent smart phone if it fell out of the sky and hit them on the head, they could clearly see that the KIN wasn't a good deal at those prices. (The upfront cost of the KIN is meaningless, by the way. The real cost of any phone is in the monthly fees you pay over a mandatory two year contract.)
Second, of course, is Microsoft. Believe it or not, this was the software giant's strategy for KIN: Create a phone for a group of users (teens and tweeners) that cannot afford a phone and assume their parents will pay for that phone. Read that again. That was really the plan.
Combined, these two companies created a product that just wasn't going to succeed. There's nothing wrong with creating something that is essentially a super-duper feature phone. But you have to price it accordingly. And you have to target an audience that can actually pay for the product. Neither happened. Failure ensued.
As is so often the case, however, KIN's failure in the marketplace doesn't mean that the devices themselves were horrible. In fact, aside from a few niggling problems--non-immediate social networking updates, for example--KIN had some decent technology to its credit. But because Microsoft sold so few of these things, my guess is that most people aren't even aware of that. So here's a short list of some of the key advantages in KIN that I'd like to see occur over in Windows Phone down the road as well.
Like any modern phone, the KIN comes with whatever amount of built-in memory, and it is this memory allotment that typically limits how much content you can store on a phone, whether its documents, pictures, videos, applications, or whatever. Of course, thanks to increasingly decent built-in cameras, people are starting to rely on their phones to take pictures. And if you run out of memory while you're out and about, that can be a problem.
Not so with KIN. Thanks to seamless integration with a free online service, all of the content on a KIN phone is transmitted, wirelessly, to the cloud. Dubbed KIN Studio, this online service is essentially offsite backup, but you can also copy content (like pictures taken with the KIN's camera) to your PC via a web browser. (Oddly, you cannot connect a KIN to your PC and download pictures that way. This is a mistake that Microsoft may be duplicating with Windows Phone, by the way.)
Automatic cloud backup is amazing. But KIN Studio's other killer feature is that the cloud storage is limitless. You don't get 2 GB, or 5 GB, or whatever. You get as much as you need.
Between the Microsoft MyPhone service (for Windows Mobile 6.x) and KIN Studio, Microsoft has the makings of an amazing online service that can stand behind Windows Phone 7 and provide its users with all of the goodness of offsite/cloud backup and the ability to get at their content from wherever they want. Something like this needs to happen on Windows Phone.
Support the Mac
This didn't get a lot of press, but Microsoft actually supported Mac users with a tool called KIN Media Sync, allowing them to push photos, music, and video to the devices from a Mac. This was necessitated by the fact that the Zune PC software, which performs similar functions for Windows-based PC users, is not available on the Mac.
It's time for that bit of silliness to stop. In fact, why we haven't seen Zune software for the iPhone and iPad is beyond me. This software would allow people to access the excellent (and thrifty) Zune Pass subscription from wherever they'd like, and with Zune PC software on the Mac, those users could adopt Windows Phone too. (Though the name of the platform will likely be a turnoff for many Mac users.)
Sound dumb? Think about it: Many of the people who have enough money to spend on Macs, iPhones, and iPads are clamoring for a good music subscription service. And Microsoft needs to move before Pandora runs away with this market. In fact, why Zune doesn't already offer something like Hulu Plus--a TV show subscription--as well is beyond me.
Social networking sharing
One thing that Microsoft is getting (sort of) right with Windows Phone is the ability to view and interact with content that your friends, family, and other contacts have posted to various social networking and online services. This information appears in various hubs throughout the Windows Phone user experience. For example, when someone you know publishes a photo to Facebook, it appears in the phone's Pictures hub. When it works, it works amazingly well.
I added "sort of" above because there is a huge caveat to this functionality. For an optimal experience along these lines, you need to have a Windows Live ID and have taken the time and effort to connect that ID to the other (usually third party) services to which you also belong. This can be Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and dozens of others, and the list is growing every day. Microsoft's strategy to make Windows Live--and thus, by extension, Windows Phone--a central hub for all this content is a good one. But it does require the user to buy into Windows Live (theologically, not financially) and then do the work. They only need to do it once. But they do need to do it.
But even if you do buy into Windows Live, you have an issue with Windows Phone when you want to post some original content to Facebook, Twitter, or whatever. Yes, there will be discrete apps for these services, but using such an app provides none of the benefits of the broader Windows Phone platform (which tries to deemphasize standalone apps); in such a case, you're just doing the same thing iPhone or Android users would do. And yes, there will be hooks in Windows Phone so you can post, say, photos to a limited range of services directly from the Pictures interface. These things work. But they're not necessarily ideal.
One KIN innovation I really enjoyed was this notion of a KIN "spot," a special little hole of sorts in the KIN UI, where you could literally drag and drop content you wanted to share. It made sharing super simple, and while it was limited to just a handful of services--Facebook and Windows Live on my phone--it's not hard to imagine this being extended to support any of the services that Microsoft already connects to via Windows Live. The point here is that social sharing needs to be both simple and expansive (from a services provider standpoint) to be truly first rate. And this is where a combination of the sharing features from KIN and those currently planned for Windows Phone would be almost ideal. If Microsoft really wants to make Windows Live the center of its users' life, then all of that needs to be exposed on Windows Phone as well.
Most people probably don't appreciate this, because most people have never even seen a KIN device in person. But almost universally, those who have seen one, and have handled them and used them, have come away impressed. These are high quality devices, and they feel good in the hand, and work well in the real world. They also have some impressive hardware inside, including amazingly high quality cameras--given their size--with excellent video and photo capabilities.
Microsoft is, of course, specifying a minimum hardware platform for every Windows Phone device. And among these requirements are specifications for such things as screen resolution, camera, and so on. But I think the key to competing with the iPhones of the world will hinge in part on a constant updating of these specifications. In fact, the release of the iPhone 4 this year, with its amazingly high resolution screen and gyroscope, both of which impressively outclass Microsoft's minimum specs for Windows Phone--speaks to this need. As each model year comes around--and I do think we need to think in those terms--the Windows Phone specs need to evolve to meet competitive threats. Phone makers should need to conform to the spec that is current when their device ships.
The end result will be an experience for users that is, in Microsoft's words, delightful. It will be the same feel-good vibe that people, believe it or not, had when they saw the KIN for the first time. It really was shocking how nice these things were.
But how nice will a KIN seem in 2011? It's hard to say. But Microsoft needs to evolve the Windows Phone specifications on a regular basis. And given how quickly Apple and Google rev their own mobile platforms, I'd say doing so yearly makes sense. I'd call this year's spec Windows Phone 2011 and then rev it from there.
In the wake of KIN's sudden cancellation, technology pundits far and wide are donning their Monday Morning Quarterback hats and racing to out-opine each other. I don't think that anything I've listed here is particularly insightful, but I do believe that the underappreciated KIN platform had some good ideas, ideas that should be carried forward to Windows Phone. Clearly, some of this will happen, given that Microsoft has pulled the KIN team into Windows Phone. My concern is that Microsoft won't be aggressive enough, or move quickly enough, to capitalize on these KIN advances in Windows Phone. Waiting until late 2011 isn't good enough, since Apple and Google will have both revved their mobile platforms in significant ways yet again by that point. What's neat is that Microsoft already did much of the work (aside from the Mac compatibility stuff, which was provided by a third party). This can and should happen quickly.