Kin Two targets young users -- but will they like it?

Microsoft's revised phone approach is less appealing than some new smartphones.

Kin Two, a slider mobile phone from Microsoft, comes off as messy as a teenager's bedroom. But maybe that's the point.

Kin Two
Kin Two

Microsoft intentionally sought to go after consumers -- specifically, teenagers and 20-somethings -- and interviewed 50,000 of them to figure out what matters to them, according to a Microsoft product manager. What the company came up with was Kin One, a squat, vaguely egg-shaped slider phone, and Kin Two, a more traditionally-shaped phone. Both include slide-out QWERTY keyboards.

Not true smartphones, the Kin phones are intended for social networking, according to Microsoft. Both devices offer Web browsing, e-mail and texting. The devices can be synced to a Zune music player; they can also download music using a Zune Pass account (costing a monthly subscription rate of $15). They both work with Wi-Fi and Verizon's CDMA voice network, although one wonders how much voice access matters to the intended audience.

While the Kin One comes with a 5-megapixel camera, a mono-speaker and 4GB of memory, the Kin Two comes with an 8-megapixel camera, stereo speakers and 8GB of memory. The Kin Two sells for $100 after rebate, twice the price of the Kin One, putting it at the lower end of mobile phone hardware prices. Minimum service cost from Verizon Wireless is $70 a month, including $30 for data, for a two-year contract.

Examining the Kin Two

I worked with the Kin Two for two days. It feels good and looks good, if a little cheap. The easy-to-use four-row keyboard supplements the 3.4-inch, 320 x 480 touch screen, which includes some novel capabilities such as the Kin Spot, a kind of on-screen cache for easily moving data to friends and contacts. The Kin Two is 4.25 x 2.5 x .75 inches and weighs 4.7 ounces.

The OS is a Windows Phone 7 variant, although Microsoft hasn't been specific about the variations, apparently because Windows Phone 7 devices haven't launched. It runs a strikingly fast Nvidia APX2600 chipset.

There's no SD card slot to expand the internal storage for data, including videos shot on the Kin Two, but there is a USB port that allows access to a PC or Mac or, conceivably, storage devices.

I imagine that the Kin's intended audience -- teenagers -- will want to decorate the bland Kin body with stickers, other skins or even tattoo laser etchings.

In general, the home screen, called Kin Loop, looks messy, which carries over to the favorites screen a finger swipe away. The graphics struck me as chaotic, intentionally, as if inspired by a page from a teen fashion magazine full of thumbnail images and text crammed into a small space. Pictures of favorite friends and other contacts are arranged in a jigsaw pattern with borders in dominant color themes such as blue or green.

I found these somewhat wild interface graphics on various screens jarring, but I'm not the intended user. This is a device clearly intended for my teenage daughter or possibly my 20-something son -- I prefer the clean appeal of the iPhone interface or even my BlackBerry Curve.

Kin marks the Spot

On the other hand, the functions in the Kin Two were snappy and quick. A nice addition is the ability to drag and drop content from virtually any application (an address, a URL, an image, a video, a Web site) to the Kin Spot, a little circle at the bottom of every screen. From there, users can drag in up to 51 contacts and send the content as a text message, multimedia message or e-mail, and attach a comment as well.

As I played with moving data to the Kin Spot from the Kin Loop home screen, it struck me that Microsoft has tried to turn a phone into a way for users to make friends. It's the inverse of how designers have looked at phones for years -- as a means of aiding communications in existing relationships.

Microsoft has decided to make it impossible to download apps on the first-generation Kins, which might be a relief to parents who don't want expensive or offensive apps on their children's phones. But that will eventually change: Greg Sullivan, senior product manager with Microsoft's mobile communications unit, told Computerworld that downloadable apps will be supported in future Kin versions.

Kin Studio, the name for the automatic cloud storage function that is intended as a big selling point, is an interesting technology. Using a PC or Mac with Silverlight, a user can view content gathered with a Kin device, everything from images to video clips to favorite Web sites.

I'm not persuaded that any young user will bother with Kin Studio, and it's a little surprising to me that Microsoft felt it had to tie the Kin phones to desktop computers. Maybe there is a kid out there interested in scrapbooking who cares about a desktop index of all that Kin-generated data, but my instinct is that young phone users just want a mobile device that stands on its own, giving them the independence and mobility that is featured in Microsoft's abundant online marketing videos.

Part of the reason Verizon Wireless is charging $70 a month for service for the Kins, including $30 for data, is obviously due to the Internet usage that Kin Studio is expected to generate. But if that's not a priority for young users, it will be a wasted expense.

The bottom line

These days, it makes much more sense to buy a smartphone that has an SD card slot and allows app downloads. That's especially true since the Kins are going to have to compete with full-fledged smartphones such as the LG Ally, an Android-based smartphone that is being sold by Verizon online at the same price as the Kin Two. Granted, the 8-megapixel video camcorder in the Kin Two is a clear advantage over Ally's 3.2-megapixel camcorder, but that's not saying much, considering that that the Ally brings Android 2.1, with all its apps, to the table.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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