Rumors of Microsoft phones that pack Zune software and are essentially next-generation versions of the Sidekick platform it acquired have been around forever–or at least since 2008. This morning, Microsoft made it all official at an event in San Francisco by announcing two phones it’s calling Kin. There’s a Kin One and a Kin Tw0–the models that have been floating around the blogosphere for months–and the Sharp-manufacturered handsets will be available next month on Verizon Wireless at prices yet to be announced.
These aren’t Windows Phone 7 devices–at least not exactly. (I asked a Microsoft representative what we should call the version of Windows they run, and she said she wasn’t sure.) Microsoft entertainment and device honcho Robbie Bach explained that the company decided to complement Windows Ph0ne 7–which is designed to simplify people’s lives–with an offshoot designed to amplify people’s lives.
That means that the Kins are aimed at highly social people–highly social people between the ages of 18 and 30, judging from the imagery at the event–and that its user interface is heavily focused on status updates and meeting up with friends online and in person.
That aim is expressed in an interface which–like Motorola’s Blur–is update-centric, with the ability to update Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, and to see what your friends are up to from the home screen. Microsoft reps kept describing it as “a magazine of your life,” and it does indeed look glossy. A feature called the Kin Spot lets you share stuff by dragging and dropping, and Microsoft says the software is smart enough to separate your true friends from casual acquaintances and celebs you follow, and to emphasis the real buddies.
The Kins also have access to Microsoft’s Zune service, via an interface that looks exactly like that of the Zune HD–which is a little odd given that the rest of the phone’s software looks nothing like the Zune. If there are any tie-ins with Microsoft’s Xbox gaming platform, we didn’t hear about them today.
I got most of my in-person demo on the egg-shaped, lower-end Kin One: The software sports a pinch-to-zoom touch interface, but looks fairly basic (and somewhat cramped on the One’s small screen). All in all, I think Microsoft isn’t trying to take on the iPhone or Android so much as please people who are stepping up from limited “feature phones.”
Both Kins have what Microsoft says are powerful flashes–for taking good pictures in nightspots–and the Kin Two has an 8MP camera that can also do 720P video. And neither Kin has a feature which I sort of thought would be standard for a new platform by now: an app store with third-party apps.
Ultimately, the most interesting thing about the Kins isn’t the phones–it’s Kin Studio, a Web service they work with. All your photos and videos get transferred to it automatically and wirelessly, and you can view them from any browser, as well as perform status updates, view your contacts, and check your text and multimedia messages and your call log. Everything’ s presented in a timeline view, so you can enjoy revisiting the fun you’ve hard and how you and your friends recorded it. It looked slick. (Maybe Microsoft will make it available for Windows Phone 7 handsets, too, at least as an option–it would be a major point in their favor.)
I expect to see Microsoft catch flack for these phones: Maybe the company should be putting everything it’s got into making Windows Phone 7 as formidable an iPhone and Android competitor as it can possibly be, not tinkering with a second phone platform which even it says caters to a niche. To me, though, the lack of apps is the major disappointment: It shows that Microsoft is still scrambling to catch up with the current state of the smartphone market.
I’ll reserve judgment, though, until Windows Phone 7 launches–or at least until we know how much the Kin One and Kin Two cost.