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Microsoft's Next of Kin

Can they be fully off track again?


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Back in May of this year, Joshua Topolsky of Engadget delivered a highly detailed but highly damning review of Microsoft's latest fiasco: the 'smartphones' (quotes intentional) Kin One and Kin Two.

Although telephony might not be mainstream enterprise computing, Topolsky's review deserves attention for several reasons.

Microsoft have been desperately trying to break new ground for the past ten years. They were initially behind in web services, have been superseded in webmail by Google, still can't get a break in the search market, have a universally maligned computer operating system that only survives because of the clumsy sales system in the enterprise, and can't produce a good handset to save the mortgage on the campus.

Microsoft have, simply put, yet to demonstrate in all their corporate history that they can actually create good products.

The latest crying shame is the introduction of two extraordinarily sad devices called Kin One and Kin Two, manufactured by Sharp but reportedly designed by Microsoft.

Topolsky's review is fair but all the more damning because it is fair.

'Make no mistake: the Kin One and Two are coming into the world as the black sheep of the phone industry', writes Topolsky and adds: 'even Microsoft seemed unsure of what the devices meant until very recently'.

'The Kin phones have admittedly been something of head-scratcher to those of us in the gadget world.'

The devices run Windows Phone which hasn't exactly been a bestseller, have stripped down interfaces, and reek of cheap and confused production and design - all the things one has come to expect of Microsoft over the years. They're mutated cousins of the Palm Pre, one short and squat, the other larger and more elongated with a wide landscape physical keyboard. They use capacitive touchscreen displays either 320x240 or 480x320, and they're built in plastic.

'From an industrial design standpoint, there isn't a lot that's laudable here. Both handsets do seem a little iffy on the build quality; the slider mechanisms feel fine, but there are lots of open spaces and notches that make the devices seem less rugged than we would prefer.'

Both handsets get the Tegra APX2600 CPU used in the forgettable Zune as well as 256 MB RAM. Storage is capped at 8 GB with no memory expansion. But Topolsky says they're still 'fairly modern'. That's always something.

'Lofty goals indeed for a product like this, and unfortunately for everyone, Microsoft misses the mark by a long shot. It's not even close.'

The displays aren't going to get you writing home: Topolsky found himself squinting to read screen text, this due to the low resolution and too few pixels, and the colours weren't particularly vibrant, and overall the displays look washed-out - not the greatest user experience ever.

The speakerphones were particularly lacklustre, prompting Topolsky to speculate that Microsoft may be hoping people aren't keen on making calls anymore. 'The sound quality of the phone seems like an afterthought... The speakerphone left quite a bit to be desired.'

But the software is the big fish, says Topolsky. And Microsoft get credit for another epic fail.

'The Kin wasn't designed for early adopters of the most cutting edge hardware - that's obvious. What it was designed to do, however, was work really well doing a couple of key tasks, most of them centered around social networking, photos and video, and some overarching concept of capturing your mobile / digital life in a whole new and easy manner. Lofty goals indeed for a product like this, and unfortunately for everyone, Microsoft misses the mark by a long shot. It's not even close.'



The first boot ends with a prompt for a username and a password but those aren't preset device settings - you're actually setting up an account with the horrific Windows Live which the Kin uses to sync data back and forth. You're never given the chance to add an account from another provider such as with webOS, Android, or iOS for anything but plain vanilla email.

'Your only hope for adding your contacts is dumping a .csv file from your account, then uploading that to your Live account, then praying that somehow the magical contact fairy makes your dreams a reality', chuckles Topolsky. 'We're still waiting for our Live account to sync those contacts to our phone or Studio.'

Obtuseness permeates the entire interface, says Topolsky, 'as though decisions about how things should work were made almost arbitrarily, without anyone stopping to test them in the real world'. Sounds about right again.

'Not only does the phone make it hard to do simple tasks - and not only are the social networking features poorly implemented - but the handsets are often sluggish, hiccupy, and downright crash-prone.'

And that's just the design. That says nothing about how the devices actually work. But as the software and system-ware come from Microsoft, one can have a pretty good idea. The browser is 'abysmally slow and buggy', consistently crashing when trying to load pages at Engadget, and the email client had trouble displaying simple rich text.

As for other features: hello? Which ones? Where? 'There's just not much there. No app store, no IM client, no games, no calendar... not even visual voicemail or some carrier-hitched GPS app.'

'The Twitter implementation is a great example. You can add your Twitter account to the phone and see updates from people you follow, and you can update your status... but that's all you can do.'

'You can't retweet something, you can't send a direct message, you can't go to single person's feed to see all their updates... Overall, it's just a deeply, deeply frustrating and inconsistent experience.'


Topolsky's building momentum.

'While using the One and Two we found ourselves consistently confused or surprised by how many bad little interface problems there are. Not only does the phone make it hard to do simple tasks - and not only are the social networking features poorly implemented - but the handsets are often sluggish, hiccupy, and downright crash-prone.'

'We were told by the devices on more than one occasion that we needed to restart (while performing basic tasks), and often it would just throw us a blank screen while we waited for the device to come back from whatever tragic internal situation was occurring.'

'It would be wonderful to say more good about the phone's UI - but we just can't.'


And to think there were suits in Redmond including Gates and the Ballmer who should have taken time to at least look at these products before putting them on the market? That was too much to ask?

The Bottom Line

According to Topolsky and the others at Engadget, price is the big question. For if they're targeted at tweens, then they need a price range parents will find agreeable. But the Kins aren't in that price range.

'There seemed to be a general sentiment [at Engadget] that if Verizon and Microsoft could partner on something that hit a lower price point for the devices coupled with a bargain-rate data package, they just might have a foot in the door, despite the obvious limitations of the device. Even if that were true - if a great price could cancel out the faults of these phones (which it can't) - Microsoft and Verizon have failed there as well.'

Kin One costs $50 after a $100 mail-in rebate. Kin Two costs $50 more after the same rebate. And they have to be coupled to the standard Verizon smartphone plan for $30 pcm.

'We were frankly shocked when we heard the pricing schemes (you also need a voice plan which will set you back another $39.99 monthly).'

So now you're already up to $70 pcm.

'To offer what is clearly so much less than a smartphone with a smartphone data plan is insulting to consumers, and doubly insulting considering who it looks like these phones are aimed at.'

'To offer what is clearly so much less than a smartphone with a smartphone data plan is insulting to consumers, and doubly insulting considering who it looks like these phones are aimed at.'

The message: BlackBerry, Droid, Incredible, and Pre all beat out the Kins and they're much better phones.

'If you were a teenager or young adult with all of these great options laid out before you, the idea of choosing this severely limited device - which doesn't do a single thing better than even the most basic Android device - is kind of crazy.'

'Microsoft hinted that it wants to shake up the text-centric featurephone market with Kin, but guess what? You categorically cannot even fathom to do that when you're charging for smartphone data. It's insulting to suggest otherwise.'


And that's not even touching on security issues with Microsoft system-ware or the scary idea of trusting them with your SMS archives in their 'clouds'. Anyone daring to go online today with a Microsoft product is really asking for it.

But what is Microsoft's track record anyway?

They bought an unfinished 'disk operating system' from Tim Paterson, had to later settle out of court with him and hire him on, signed a fortuitous and historical non-exclusive licensing agreement with IBM for PC-DOS which they would rebrand as MS-DOS, worked for years with IBM on the abortive OS/2 which was buggy beyond belief until they left IBM to it, bluffed the world's media for over two years with vaporware stories about a GUI of their own which they didn't have, badgered their competition at Comdex 1983 who threatened to beat them to market with that GUI, undermined WordPerfect and drove them from the market, got taken to court by the DOJ, are still in hot water with the European Union, keep settling multi-billion dollar class action suits around the world, coin bewildering phrases like 'de novo innovation', continue to sell a system regularly and roundly humiliated by unqualified hackers in their jammies, are solely responsible for virus-laden spam that represents 97% of all electronic mail traffic - what exactly have they done?

The Xbox?

And product names like 'Kin' and 'Zune' - who are they kidding?

To paraphrase Frank Zappa: Microsoft Corporation may survive for now but there's a strange, rather awful stench coming from the general direction of their campus in Redmond Washington.

Postscript: Kin Gone

Microsoft have now killed the Kins after three months. Total sales were under 10 K units.

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