Microsoft's new Kin phones are not truly smartphones, but Verizon Wireless is charging users a minimum monthly $70 service fee -- $30 alone for data -- anyway, over a two-year contract.
Microsoft and Verizon representatives defended the fee on Tuesday, partly because of the Kins' automatic cloud-based backup of video, pictures and other data.
Neither phone has the ability to download applications and games -- taking it out of the realm of most smartphones -- but Microsoft said it plans to allow app downloads in a future version as services are merged with upcoming Windows Phone 7 devices.
"Over the longer term, we'll be merging [Kin and Windows Phone 7] platforms and having downloadable apps," said Greg Sullivan, senior product manager with Microsoft's mobile communications unit.
Critics have drubbed the new the new Kin phones for charging mostly younger users a $70 monthly minimum smartphone service fee over two years. Negative comments have flowed from bloggers and reviewers.
Microsoft and Verizon view the Kin Windows phones as a new category of social networking phone, somewhere between a smartphone and a high-end feature phone.
"We're introducing a new category that's not exactly a smartphone and certainly more than a high-end feature phone -- a social or cloud phone -- with a rich browsing experience and rich multimedia social networking where everything I do on the phone is automatically backed up in the Kin Studio [in the cloud]," Sullivan said.
Brenda Raney, a spokeswoman for Verizon, said that the Kin phones were "designed ... to be a full service device [for] the person whose life is about networking."
She said she has seen the critics' comments about the service plan costing too much, but said Verizon has seen many users already paying the $70 monthly smartphone plan for different devices.
Raney said the Kins' biggest feature is backing up video files, photos and other data in the Kin Studio cloud, which is accessible with a Microsoft Silverlight-capable PC or Mac.
That kind of backup will lead to plenty of Internet usage that Verizon is trying to cover with the $70 fee, some critics have pointed out.
Sullivan said customers will get used to that monthly charge. "Once they realize the value of this, they'll realize it's a great deal," he said.
Even though Kin One and Kin Two do not support downloadable applications, including games, there are built-in applications such as a variety of social networking apps like Facebook and Twitter , a Zune music player, and cameras, including an HD video camera in the $100 (after rebate) Kin Two.
The Kin One, which costs $50 after rebate, puts both models at the lower end of the mobile phone hardware cost spectrum, but true smartphones such as the Palm Pre Plus can be purchased for $30.
Microsoft's Kin One phone focuses on social networking. With a square shape, it has a five-megapixel camera and 4GB of memory. The Kin Two phone, the larger device, has a wider screen, 8 megapixel camera and shoots HD video.
The HTC Droid Incredible goes for $200 after rebates, and still can be purchased on a $70 smartphone plan, for example.
Sullivan said Windows Phone 7 devices coming later in 2010 will allow downloading of apps, adding that Microsoft will eventually support downloadable apps on Kin devices.
Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, said in April that the two Windows Phone platforms were different. He said Kin devices will "amplify" the lives of users, while Windows Phone 7 phones will "simplify" users' lives.
Microsoft developed the two platform approaches based on research with 50,000 customers, mapping them to "distinct life stages" that obviously correlate to younger and older audiences.
"If you want to amplify your life and are in searching mode, the Kin is for you and if want to simplify you life and manage things, then Windows Phone 7 is for you," Sullivan said.
In releasing Kin One and Kin Two, Microsoft worked closely with device maker Sharp Electronics and Verizon Wireless, Sullivan said. That's a clear departure from when Microsoft built the Windows Mobile OS and basically told manufactures to work with it on their own.
After two years of criticism from various quarters for its Windows Mobile OS problems, Sullivan said Microsoft engineers and designers have a "new approach that's focused on the consumer and we're taking more responsibility for the hardware and software integration with the carrier and manufacturer."
Recognizing that Apple 's iPhone is the hot phone to beat, and the related interest in the video chat feature expected in the next-genertaion Apple smartphone, Sullivan said Windows phones could incorporate video chat if users want it.
"If the audience is really interested in that, we have the ability to update the platform," he said. But audience surveys showed that video chat was not a high priority for the first version, he added.
With the launch of Kin, Sullivan has been pleased by user adoption, pointing to 160,000 "fans of Kin" on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/kin only five days after the Kins' online launch. Twitter users are following Kin users as well at www.twitter.com/kin.
After a long period of Windows Mobile problems, Sullivan said that the mood at Microsoft is "really excited" following the Kin launch and with workers anticipating the Windows Phone 7 launch later in the year.
"There's a realization that this market is nascent and there's a tremendous opportunity over the next many years in smartphones and we expect to be there," Sullivan said.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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This story, "Microsoft, Verizon Defend Kin's Monthly Pricing" was originally published by Computerworld.