If you've been following our reports
, you know that Microsoft's Kin
aren't your average smartphones. They don't have a big, bright screen, a particularly fast processor or a robust app store filled with thousands of third-party programs. They're just a pair of interestingly-designed phones
with high-res cameras, running a MOTOBLUR-like OS that aggregates your social networks into a neat stream
, while smartly documenting every picture, video and status update
in cloud storage for future reference. What does that juxtaposition mean for the cellphone market? Honestly, we can't quite agree -- so we're going to let the roving, mobile minds at Engadget HQ speak for themselves.
The Kin is perplexing to me, and doubly so due to Microsoft's recent announcement of Windows Phone 7 at Mobile World Congress (with a follow-up showing at MIX10). It was literally
one month ago that the company was extolling the possibilities and benefits of its completely rethought OS, a ground-up, reboot effort from the Windows Mobile team. An OS which taps into the Zune ecosystem, plays Xbox Live games, is built around the concept of social networking integration
(sound familiar?), will have rich apps and great options for developers, and is built for state-of-the-art hardware. So, how does the company move from its halo mobile devices to the Kin and have it make any kind of sense? From high-end, iPhone-stomping phones, to two devices which are seriously under-spec'd (4GB, really guys?), severely lacking in services (no apps? no calendar?), and questionably designed (uh, the Turtle). How does this make sense for Microsoft, and more importantly, the consumer? Is the Kin customer the people featured in the brand's advertising -- scruffy, savvy, urban twenty-somethings who love technology but don't want technology to get in the way of having a good time -- or is it for someone else entirely? And is that the point?
"There is a market out there for them, not nascent but actual, where apps and email and calendars sound like a hassle, not a feature."
Now, I don't identify with the folks in the ads, in fact, I'm not sure that anyone really does. They're like a faker version of Urban Outfitters hipsters, some copy of a copy based on an idea that never really meant anything to start with. And Microsoft doesn't just use The Hipster to sell phones -- they go one step further and cast actors as
hipsters selling phones. That's the thing, though: we're not supposed to identify with them. But kids weaned on Gossip Girl
and Jersey Shore
? Kids who won't see through the marketing? As our friend Michael Gartenberg suggested to me on a phone call, "it's aspirational." Yes, aspirational, but not for us, and not for people who actually stay out late, drink, and burn their lover's old photos on a desolate beach. No, not for them or us -- the iPhone and BlackBerry users of the world. The people that actually need a phone to do real things
. I think the mistake for us is in thinking that that's what Microsoft has in mind. I think they're aiming for a very different market, one that the editors of Engadget (and the majority of its readership) don't truly understand. Are they tweens? Teens? Probably both. And probably -- likely -- you have no idea what tweens and teens want in a phone. There is a market out there for them, not nascent but actual, a market where apps and email and calendars sound like a hassle, not a feature. A market where connecting via text and Facebook is the main course, not the side dish. A market that actually can't afford a $30 data plan and apps, even if they're cheap. A market made up of talking, texting, socially -- not networked, but connected -- kids out there that want something like the Kin in their life. And hey, when they grow up, after the gateway drug of Kin, they'll be ready for Windows Phone... at least that's probably what Microsoft is hoping.
The flip side? It's everything I see on the surface; misguided, underwhelming, way too short on features, and likely scrapped when (or if) Windows Phone 7 takes a foothold. Young consumers -- the spendiest of the spendy -- will cast their vote in cold, hard cash soon enough.
So, the biggest question that comes to mind with Kin is "why?" It's not that Microsoft isn't doing anything interesting, it's just that they're giving out what basically amounts to a subset of what's going to be in Windows Phone 7. Why not just try to get Windows Phone 7 on as many screens as possible? Why fragment your development effort? Don't ask me. Still, taken on its own I think Kin offers some valuable, interesting approaches to the problem of social networking on a handset -- even if they're minimal and potentially half-baked. Basically, the idea of keeping in contact via email / SMS / status updates shouldn't be consigned to applications, instead they should be the essence of a modern phone (I'm hardly the young and hip target market here, but even I don't care much for actual phone calls). Microsoft seems to know this, though why they decided a phone should or could be only this is troubling. Oh, and the addition of Kin Studio for managing everything that's happening on your phone from your computer is just gravy.
The other thing I find really interesting here is that Microsoft is selling hardware. It's not in such a way to compete with their flagship third party handset builders (and again, I'm pretty sure that's a problem they should be facing now, not deferring), but it's phone hardware nonetheless. That puts these Kin handsets in the small realm of non-peripheral Microsoft devices that include the Xbox (great product, big win) and Zune (great product, big loss). Where it will fall is anybody's guess, but my money is on something much closer to Zune than Xbox. No matter how cool some of Kin's ideas are, the phones will still be too expensive (in either handset or service cost) to compete with dumbphones, and too feature-limited to compete with the iPhone.
I've never owned a phone that wasn't "smart," and the moment I set eyes on the Kin I knew it wasn't the phone for me. Smartphones these days are customizable affairs where you can build a library of programs that assist you with every informational aspect of your life, when you have only to generate a use case and find there's already "an app for that," but the Kin doesn't have an app store. That said, the Kin One is the sexiest, most comfortable pocket camcorder
I've seen in some time, with a fantastic little keyboard for captioning photos and sending status updates. If the powers that be intervened and let me use it on my existing unlimited data plan instead of having to purchase a new one (as Kin buyers surely will), I could see myself dropping a Kin One in my pocket just for personal lifestreaming purposes.
As for Kin's actual target demographic -- former Sidekick fans -- I think it all depends on price. If Microsoft and partner carriers can make Kin significantly more affordable than the iPhone, enough to tempt parents to pick them up instead, they just might have a winner on their hands.
I've been doing everything I can to put myself in the place of Microsoft's target demographic when I think about Kin, because frankly speaking, it ain't me. I'll do what I can to ignore the press conference, but sitting in the audience waiting for more Savage Garden references, I felt like Microsoft missed a point. The company shouldn't be only be catering to the needs of the target demographic; it should, in fact, do all that and
try to teach an audience new ways of using the phone -- as Apple has shown, people love the bells and whistles. How about some simplified augmented reality along the lines of Layar, something not too terribly taxing on the bandwidth... which brings me back to the crux of Kin, and a sentiment I expect will be repeated quite often.
"Great hardware, ever-expanding cloud-based storage... but really, its fate hinges on the upfront costs and the data plan."
Microsoft is going after the featurephone market with a device that requires you to upload every single video and photo, and barring some magic, those 5 and 8 megapixel party shots won't be making carriers too happy. If the upfront cost, or even worse the monthly data plan, is anywhere in the vicinity of smartphones, the much-beleaguered Palm Pre is gonna start looking much nicer -- say what you will about an uncertain future, at least it has games and an app catalog. Kin as a platform has a lot of great ideas -- ever-expanding cloud-based storage and a well-implemented gesture system, to name a couple -- and the hardware is absolutely gorgeous, but really, its fate hinges on the upfront costs and the data plan.
I realize I'm in the minority here, but I kinda like the idea of the Kin. Sure, Microsoft's forced marketing angle just feels a bit weird, and it's easy to look down on a gussied up dumbphone that exists largely for the sake of making the process of menial tweeting that much easier. But, honestly, I think the idea for the Kin is a good one and that most of those who aren't getting it aren't supposed
to get it. This is a phone largely intended for teens, and few outside of that demographic are really going to see any appeal here.
That said, the Kin Two is a little odd: too big for skinny jeans, and landscape sliders are a pain for firing off nine-char "C U there" texts. But, the Kin One has a fun looking design with cool functionality and the Kin experience as a whole looks really seamless. I think with some subtler marketing Kin could be a success, but the big problem isn't really about the hardware or software. Many of Microsoft's "Generation Upload" already have an iPhone, and are they likely to give it up for this? To find success Microsoft is going to have to make this thing cheap, like free with contract cheap, and that seems a little unlikely to me.
It's easy to write off Kin as a failure -- it doesn't game, it doesn't let users (supposedly socially-connected ones) instant message, and it dares to argue that something as basic as a calendar isn't a critical app. As with everything, though, it's all about perspective. Despite what you may have heard, there's absolutely a market segment that Kin is capable of owning and turning on its end -- but in order to see that potential and to understand it, you've got to block everything you know about modern smartphones from your mind.
"The days when smartphones were geeky tools relegated to high-tech road warriors are long gone, and they aren't coming back."
The days when smartphones were geeky tools relegated to high-tech road warriors are long gone, and they aren't coming back. Devices like the iPhone, the Pre, and the upcoming flood of Windows Phone 7 hardware all squarely target the average aspirational consumer; these are phones we want to own not just because they're powerful, but because they're beautiful and trendy. That's a huge threat to the Kin's philosophy and raison d'être, because Microsoft is banking on the fact that kids -- perhaps the trendiest humans on the face of the planet -- don't have their eyes on an iPhone. They're assuming that the hundreds of thousands of teens with text-centric dumbphones (a category so big that AT&T has given it a catchy name, "quick messaging devices") will continue to buy and ask their parents for those same text-centric dumbphones.
That's a risky bet, no doubt about it, but it's winnable. The bottom line is that I think Kin's success or failure hinges on two things. Most importantly, Microsoft needs to be extraordinarily careful about how it positions and markets the product; it isn't complementary to Windows Phone 7, nor does it compete with any mobile product Microsoft has sought to compete with in the past (actually, I think that the company has already misstepped a bit here by attaching the "Windows Phone" name to it -- it should've been a total clean-slate campaign devoid of anything related to Microsoft or its other products). Tied into this is the fact that, of course, the pricing needs to be right. Kids and parents both need to be able to afford the product and its plans, which will need to run significantly less than what you'd pay per month for a full-fledged smartphone.
Secondly -- and this is more of a "big picture" thing -- Microsoft needs a story for keeping users in the ecosystem. Kin is an exceptionally tightly-focused product that will be very, very easy for users to outgrow, and right now, there's not much of a migration path between it and Windows Phone 7. Basically, it feels like Kin would serve Microsoft much more effectively in the long run as a "flavored" version of Windows Phone 7 rather than an architecturally unique platform -- but they're not there today, and in the meantime, the company risks seeing ex-Kin users move on to iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android-based devices unless the pull of Zune Pass alone is enough to keep them put (we doubt it).
Will I be buying a Kin? No, and odds are good you won't be, either -- but to write it off as a product without a market is a bit premature. At this point, the ball is entirely in the courts of Microsoft's and Verizon's marketing teams to make sure we know exactly who these phones are for.
It's kind of strange to think that Microsoft revealed an overhauled OS and two new phones just moments (it seems, anyway) after Windows Phone 7 wowed us all. Frankly, it feels a little bit like the Kin duo has been in the oven for a long, long time, and four years ago tweens were crazy about texting and little else. A lot has changed in the mobile world since; every teen I know wants either a BlackBerry, an iPhone or if they're really wild, an Android handset. No one I know wants a half-baked "texting machine." But in reality, smartphones aren't for everyone, and Microsoft is apparently aiming to satisfy those who aren't willing to shell out or put up with everything that comes with smartphone ownership.
The problem? A data plan is a data plan (today, anyway), and $30 per month is $30 per month. It's simple, really -- would you get more value from a $30 data plan on an iPhone, or a $30 data plan on a Nokia Surge? Which is really more capable of using data and data-intensive services? I'm honestly hoping that the Kin launch leads to a lower tier of data service -- something that was everywhere even when the original iPhone launched (remember that?). For an extra $5 or $10 per month for unlimited data, I could see a few teens picking up a Kin One or Kin Two for free (or close to free) on contract, but make no mistake -- Microsoft and Verizon are going to have price this right in order make waves. Demand $99 on contract for the phone(s) and $30 for a limitless data plan and you can go ahead and pack it up. There's just far too much competition, and far too much demand for smartphones, to play that card and hope for the best.
Let's get this out of the way: I'm not a fan of products targeting specific demographics. Pink for girls, blue for boys; Pixies for frazzled moms, and Droids for truck drivin' dads. And listening to Microsoft pitch the "upload generation" on Kin was like watching a floppy-skinned Larry King "chill" with his "home-boy" Snoop Dog -- awkward, painful, nauseating.
"If the Spot, Loop, and Studio elements are so spectacular, why not integrate into a variant of Microsoft's premier mobile OS, Windows Phone 7?"
Having said that, I'm a sucker for a slick user interface and novel but purposeful user experience. From what I've seen (not yet experienced first hand, mind you), the Zune Pass, Twitter, Facebook, and camera integration seem well conceived as does the web-based Kin Studio timeline. But why did Microsoft stop there? No 3D games to snack on, no app store of any kind? Did we slip into a celestial time suck and emerge back in 2007? And if the Kin Spot, Loop, and Studio elements are so spectacular, why weren't they integrated into a variant of Microsoft's premier mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7 OS? It's not like WinPho 7 has any legacy code to contend with for chrissake. Other than internal corporate politics and fiefdoms, I can see no other reason for Microsoft to purposely fragment its own user base. In what bizarre corporate strategy does it make sense to follow three parallel mobile OS development paths -- yes, 3, remember, Microsoft will keep Windows Mobile 6.x alive for corporate enterprises into the foreseeable future. Oh right, the Nokia model lazily fueled by MS Office and Windows riches. I'll be recommending WinPho7 when cruising the high schools come May.
As a 30-ish year old woman, I'll admit that Microsoft is probably not targeting me with the Kin -- they're going for a hipper, more Urban Outfittered, less boyish looking version of me, say, 7-10 years ago. I'll also admit that there's something about featurephones that even to this day are attractive to me -- call it my hankering for the olden days, you know, when things were simpler and if you wanted to get an album you had to go somewhere, talk to a person in a store, pay for it with money, etc. So the fact that the Kin is not by any means a smartphone does not immediately make me chortle with disdain. There are a few things that I find intriguing here -- mostly the Kin Studio and Loop functions, which I think could be legitimate selling points to the phone. Design-wise, however -- well -- the fact that it reminds me of the LeapFrog Text and Learn probably isn't a good thing: the Kin just looks a little too much like a toy, and neither iteration is very attractive, in my opinion. That's probably going to hurt it. And then there is the marketing... which for me is just a bit... creepy. Not Palm lady creepy, but creepy in that the images we're presented with are of people whose "originals" I've yet to see walking the streets anywhere. Like they are merely someone's idea of youth and young people, rather than that reality itself. Now, I don't really expect realistic portrayals in marketing, but something about these "young people" seems to me, at least, to ring really false -- in a way that I think will also ring false to Microsoft's intended demographic. But hey, I'm old. What do I know?
My twenty-one year old sister is exactly who Microsoft has in mind to buy the Kin One and Two. Yep, she's a member of "generation upload" and is constantly (and I mean constantly) sharing what she's up to with her friends via Facebook, BBM, text messages and her IM status. Here's the thing though, her and all of her friends have smartphones.
"My twenty-one year old sister is exactly who Microsoft has in mind to buy the Kin One and Two. Yep, she's a member of 'generation upload'."
Surprisingly, most of them own BlackBerrys -- not iPhones for some reason -- and communicate all day long through BBM (BlackBerry Messenger for those that aren't familiar with the proprietary instant message software) and upload pictures to Facebook through the app. My young and beautiful sister also uses those inherent "smartphone" features, like the calendar to keep track of her classes and e-mail to communicate with our parents. And that's just it -- people in this age group haven't only grabbed a hold of smartphones, they swear up and down by them. I'm intrigued by the Kin and its flowy interface, but I'd bet you that my sister and her friends would be a lot more interested in a full fledged Windows 7 smartphone if forced to choose amongst Microsoft's newest mobile offerings. My guess is that for Kin or these "smart-dumb phones" to really take hold, the value has to be incredibly obvious to Gen Uploaders that want to save some cash for beer or clothes. And that's ultimately what Verizon and Microsoft have to do -- create an enticing balance of price and features -- to win over my smartphone-loving sister.
Sam (our intern):
Microsoft never ceases to amaze me. Immediately after the launch of Windows Phone 7 comes its Kin (yes, pun intended). As a proud former owner of a Sidekick LX, I'll gladly raise a glass of champagne to Danger, but the news of the Kin kind of makes me want to stop drinking altogether. The Kin One and Kin Two (whose names make me think of a death in the family) don't seem to be anything more than toys with a 5MP and 8MP camera strapped on. Sure, they keep you connected to all your social networks at once, but honestly, who really needs this? I've asked many friends my age (nineteen), and just like me, they get their Facebook and Twitter fixes with their laptops and current smartphones. My younger brothers (a freshman and junior in high school, respectively) both think the Kin is "overkill," and while it might be an ideal phone for people who want to be connected all time, the amount of people that would actually want that in a phone is probably somewhat limited. I think the straightjacketing and limitations that come with Kin devices are huge drawbacks -- but what offends me the most is the way the demographic targeted by Microsoft was portrayed at the Kin event. Microsoft made it seem that a majority of social network users are teenage or twenty-something hipsters who think that "Facebook is a second job" and enjoy "hanging out watching fat people eat burritos." Um... what? The way that Kin portrayed my age group yesterday made me feel ashamed to be a part of, well... my age group. I get my social networking done via my laptop and my iPhone, and I don't need my phone to document my night -- sometimes you just want actual memories.