Hands-on First Impressions of Microsoft’s Kin Phones

Microsoft (s MSFT) today launched a line-up of mobile devices called Kin. Built by Sharp and going on sale through Verizon Wireless (s vz) starting next month, the phones are targeted at young people — mostly teenagers — and are the handiwork of members of the Danger team, which Microsoft acquired in February 2008 for $500 million.
I attended the Kin launch largely because I was curious as to what Microsoft’s response to the Apple-Android (s aapl) (s goog) assault on the smartphone market would look like. After all, it’s not like anyone will be able to buy a Microsoft-branded Windows Phone anytime soon. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was curious — the event was packed to the gills. So like everyone else there, I gave the first two models to be launched — the Kin One and Kin Two — a try, only to find myself quickly overwhelmed by all the things taking place on the screen.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me start by accentuating the positive: The two devices are extremely well built and are exceptionally fast, with touchscreens that are positively spritely compared to their Android-based rivals. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the company has done a great job of cobbling together solid hardware that’s chock-full of features. The Kin Two in particular felt nice and sturdy; its slide-out keyboard was comfortable and its overall look was as appealing as the Palm Pre. OK that last bit was a joke, but it does look very much like the Palm (s palm) device.
Marry that hardware to a superb 3G network like Verizon’s and you are in for a great experience, especially when accessing Internet-based services, whether they be photos, videos or contacts. Snapping photos or videos and loading them to the web using the Kin phones is dead simple.
Another excellent feature of the Kin phones is their tight integration with Microsoft’s Zune Music Service. Accessing music through the service was a totally mind-blowing experience — fast, responsive and easy to use. Whether that’s due to Verizon’s network or some under-the-hood trickery, I don’t know, but in the future I will expect all music services to be as good as this one.
Unfortunately all this goodness doesn’t add up to a great phone, because the user experience was cluttered and confusing. The opening screen, which is a grid divided into squares, is so busy it reminds me of Times Square on a Friday night.
Microsoft’s Kin can be divided into three components — the Loop, the Spot and the Studio. The Loop is essentially a social aggregation service that is very much like Motorola’s Blur except a tad more polished. It allows you to get updates from Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.
And as with the Moto Blur, it’s a good idea but one that causes visual dissonance — which is even more profound if you’ve ever experienced the picture-perfect serenity of an iPhone OS-based device. The lack of visual polish extends to the Spot, a sharing service that allows you to share  photos, texts and web pages with almost anyone by simply dragging them to a “spot” on your phone.
Again, a great idea, but one that needs some spit and polish.

Photo of Kin Studio By Microsoft

The most stunning part of the package is the Kin Studio. I absolutely love this feature, which offers a visually delighful way to save everything you’ve created on the phone to the Internet and then access it from any web browser. Use it in concert with a Facebook account and suddenly you have a whole new way of managing information. If Microsoft is smart, it’ll turn this into a freestanding service. Think of this as Microsoft’s version of Apple’s MobileMe, albeit one that works with all devices, regardless of their operating environments.
As you might have guessed by now, there’s a lot I like about the Kin line of phones and yet they left me feeling as satisfyied as I do after eating a quick Chinese meal at the food court. I found the overall experience to lack a certain coherence, and ironically I think the problem with the Kin line as it stands now can be summed up by this bit from the Microsoft press release:

With KIN, social networking is built into the fabric of the phone. KIN has a fun, simple interface, which is designed to help people publish the magazine of their life by making the people and stuff they love the focus rather than menus and icons.

Exactly — it’s trying to do too many things at once. And in the process, it’s defying what has become standard user behavior among young people: trying and buying applications. As AdMob CEO Omar Hamoui once told me: Apps are the new entertainment. From that perspective, Microsoft may have missed a step here, especially given its odds. Indeed, at least one analyst suggests that nearly 31 percent of American teenagers want an iPhone in “the next six months, up from 22% last fall and nearly double the 16% who wanted one a year ago.” From Fortune:

“We believe that the teen demographic is a critical component of long-term growth in the digital music and mobile markets,” wrote Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster. “And Apple is taking its leading position in music and mobile markets.”

Well the good news is that Microsoft is at least is playing in the right market now.