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Microsoft Kin Preview

Microsoft Kin Preview

It wasn't supposed to be this interesting. According to the pre-release rumors, which date back to last year, Microsoft was working on a follow-up to its Danger Sidekick phone platform, codenamed Pink. It was something aimed at the tweener market. There would be two devices, Turtle and Pure, and the phones would be focused largely on texting and social networking. You know, something for those ADD teenagers or 20's hipsters with too much time on their hands.

I am not such a person, so I have to admit to having had some amount of ambivalence about this thing. But with Microsoft hosting a satellite launch event in New York City--practically next door, given the wonderful Amtrak service between there and Boston--I figured, what the heck. How bad could it be?

Well, it wasn't bad at all. In fact, the devices, which are marketed under the new Kin brand and will be sold exclusively through Verizon Wireless in the US, are quite a bit different than what the rumors suggested. Yes, there are two models, now called Kin One and Kin Two. Yes, they are targeted at the annoying Tweener market. And yes, they are very much involved with texting and social networking.

But the other rumors were wrong. Kin is based on Windows Phone, not on Sidekick, and that makes it very interesting to me, because Windows is the focus of this site, and my writing. And because the future of Windows is both mobile and connected, just like these devices. This is not a subtle change, and it casts the Kin platform in an all-new, largely positive light.

So here's what I found out about Microsoft's next mobile platform, a sister product, of sorts, to the broader and more capable Windows Phone lineup. I'll have a hands-on review sometime in the next month or so.

The hardware

As noted above, there are two Kin devices, made by Sharp and imaginatively branded as Kin One and Kin Two. Kin One, formerly codenamed Turtle for obvious reasons, is a hockey puck-looking slide phone that is surprisingly small and light and fits in the palm of a hand. It features a 2.6 inch 320 x 240 QVGA (quarter VGA) screen, which seems pretty low-res but is surprisingly nice in person, 4 GB of storage, a 5 megapixel video-capable camera with LED flash and, on the pull-out slider, a full QWERTY keyboard.

Kin Preview

The Kin Two features a "candy bar" form factor, 3.4 inch 480 x 320 HVGA (half VGA) screen, an 8 megapixel 720p HD video-capable camera with LED flash, and 8 GB of internal storage. On this phone, the hardware keyboard slides out of the side of the device, so you switch it into landscape mode to type and the screen rotates to accommodate this view automatically.

Kin Preview

Both phones share a number of hardware components, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Verizon Wireless 3G (EV-DO Rev. A) capabilities. And on both devices, the screen is of the capacitive multi-touch variety. They both include dedicated phone, emoticon, and search buttons on their hardware keyboards as well, and both phones come in a standard color scheme that consists of various blacks and grays as well as an Xbox 360-like green accent.

Internally, the Kin phones utilize the same NVIDIA Tegra chipset that first debuted in last year's Zune HD, providing an interesting hardware link to Microsoft's pre-Windows Phone platform. And in a nod to the hipster lifestyle, battery life is unofficially rated as "one full weekend," or was described to me, "enough time to get from Friday night to Sunday morning." The devices include a micro-USB port for charging and PC sync.

Notably, there is no storage expansion, via some kind of micro-SD or similar slot. This is by design, and on purpose, and Microsoft says that the devices' couple online service, described below, will mitigate any potential storage issues. More on that in a bit.

Kin Preview
Even the Kin packaging is really nice.

Overall, the Kin devices seemed to fit well in the hand, particularly the Kin One, and were snappy in use and pleasantly constructed. I'm not in the target market--in fact, I might be twice the age of the average Kin user--but I could see my kids and other youngsters getting excited by these devices. But mobile phones aren't just about plastic and glass, of course. The more important, ingredient, perhaps, is the software.

The software

The Kin software platform consists of a pretty busy and unique UI which sits on top of the a variant of the kernel used by Windows Phone. But aside from a very few small touches--like the Zune-tastic Music + Video interface, very little in the Kin software platform bears any resemblance to Windows Phone. In fact, the closest thing I've seen to it, so far, is Motorola's Motoblur software, which is available on phones like the CLIQ and BACKFLIP.

The main Kin UI, or home screen, is called Loop and is busier than Motoblur but accomplishes the same thing: It combines social networking updates, from a variety of services, into a single feed that is presented in highly graphical fashion. This UI consists of a number of blocks that fill the device screen, not like Windows Phone at all, where white space seems to be at more of a premium. Here, the effect is busy and full.

Kin Preview

The Loop promises real-time updating (it's really every fifteen minutes, or via a manual trigger), and you can of course adjust the position of items on the screen using easy-to-remember multi-touch gestures. At the Kin announcement earlier this week, the company talked about how those who frequent social networking services really have three levels of friends, actual friends (those they really know), acquaintances, and then "friends," which are people they've "friended" online but don't typically really know at all. And this ability to position items in the feed addresses the multi-tiered friend situation, so that you can ensure that the people you care about most show up more frequently in the Loop.

Kin Preview

At the center bottom of the phone's UI, you'll see a small green circle. This is the Kin Spot, and it's a fairly intuitive way to share virtually anything. You configure it to work in some default fashion--share via both Facebook and Twitter, for example--and when you drag items from elsewhere in the UI onto the Spot, they're shared. Or at least that's the theory: This was something I saw demoed, but didn't have a chance to try. I'll look at that more closely when the review unit arrives.

There's more going on with the device's software, however. In fact, there are a number of useful applications on the phone, though Microsoft isn't providing any games or an associated app store where users can get more. (This limitation is by design and has to do with the target market for the Kin, and its positioning as a mid-point between feature phones and true smart phones.) These apps include Music + Video (or "the Zune Experience" though I didn't see that name appear in the UI), which provides digital media playback and looks exactly like the Zune HD UI (which is great news). It includes a Windows Phone-based web browser, with no Flash support. (I tested this browser with my own sites and it renders like Windows Phone 7.) There's also an alarm, an email app, and then apps for phone functions like camera, messaging, phone, and so on.

One of the biggest differentiators for Kin, of course, is its cloud-based companion service, Kin Studio. This appears as a Silverlight-based web site you can access from a PC web browser, but the big news here, really, is how it interacts with your device, silently, behind the scenes. Microsoft is providing Kin owners with unlimited web storage, and Kin phones will automatically "dribble" content stored on the phone--pictures, video, whatever--up to Kin Studio over time so that everything you have is backed up. This feature essentially means that you'll never run out of storage on the device, according to Microsoft. As usual, I'll need to test this, but it's an interesting concept. And Kin Studio also provides My Phone-like functionality, providing a cloud-based backup of your other phone data, like SMS messages, contacts, and the like.

Kin Preview

On the PC, Kin syncs with Zune, just like Windows Phone. And for you Mac users in the audience, Microsoft is going to offer up a Zune Sync application. (Which suggests that no Zune software will ever make its way to the Mac.)

Availability and pricing expectations

The Kin One and Two will be sold in the US by Verizon Wireless and, later this year, in Europe by Vodaphone. I'm not sure about other locales, but Microsoft currently has no plans to sell the devices in Asia, and I doubt we'll see them on other carriers here in the US. (Sidekick is exclusive to T-Mobile, for example.)

No word yet on pricing, which I found odd, and Microsoft tells me this is Verizon's call, and that we can expect info in the weeks ahead. But the target audience for Kin provides some insight into where this may fall. According to the software giant, the Kin audience is still dependent on their parents, financially and otherwise, and they expect people to purchase these devices for their kids and add them to family plans. This suggests a low upfront cost and a low monthly fee, especially for those who have multiple devices with Verizon. So my expectation is that a Kin will cost about half as much as a traditional smart phone (iPhone/Android) and will come with similarly half-priced monthly fees of about $40 a month. That's just my guess, however.

Looking ahead

I'll provide a more traditional review once I've spent more than just a few minutes handling the Kin devices. But my initial reaction is largely positive, and certainly much more so than it was before I understood what it was that Microsoft was trying to accomplish. As with any modern gadget, there are questions, many around the things Microsoft left out--games, an apps store, a calendar, and so on--but these questions will be answered in part by an eventual review and in part by the actual people who use these devices down the road. I'll have more info on Kin as soon as my review unit arrives.

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