Beware the smartphone pretenders

Microsoft's Kin is the latest cell phone that pretends to be a smartphone -- at a high cost to users who get fooled

Mobile providers often seem to think their customers are fools, mere marks to pickpocket and cheat as they wander the carnival that is a cellular store. The latest example: Microsoft's Kin, a pair of kids' cell phones masquerading as smartphones. Worse, its exclusive carrier -- Verizon Wireless -- charges $30 per month for its data services on top of the voice service, so you're talking $70 per month for one of these unremarkable devices.

The Kins are all about social media, so the devices feature video and photo sharing, texting, Facebooking, tweeting, and so on -- just like the hundreds of cell phones available from every carrier (they call them "feature phones") without requiring a data plan.

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Microsoft is doing its part to mislead customers as well. It says the Kin is part of the Windows Phone family, a surefire way to make people think it's one of the new Windows Phone 7 devices coming out this fall to replace the Windows Mobile smartphone platform. If you don't notice that "7" is missing from the Kin marketing, you'd easily believe it's a smartphone. The truth is, the Kin's operating system is not the same as Windows Phone 7.

Here's the truth: The only real smartphones are the Apple iPhone, the various Google Android devices (such as the Motorola Droid and HTC Droid Eris), the various Microsoft Windows Mobile devices (from a variety of hardware makers), many of the Nokia E- and N-series devices, the Palm Pre, and the RIM BlackBerry series. Anything else is a feature phone. What makes a smartphone: corporate email support, an apps market, at least basic security, PDA capabilities, and true Web browsing. VPN support is part of most smartphones' functionality as well.

The early reviews of the Kin show the device itself to be unremarkable, even as a feature phone, and the user interface "obtuse" and shaky, especially the more you use it. That's too bad because there are some interesting concepts in the Kin UI. But perhaps this incompleteness is inevitable: When was the last time Microsoft issued a product that wasn't fully baked until at least its third iteration? It looks like the Kin is living up to Microsoft's tradition of using paying customers as beta testers.

Verizon has pulled this "pay more than you should" stunt before. If you get an Android device, you pay an extra $10 each month if you let it slip that you intend to connect to Microsoft Exchange. Why accessing Exchange email should cost you more than accessing POP or IMAP email is beyond me -- clearly, it's a ploy to soak the business user.

Now Verizon has turned to fooling the Kins' 20-something target market, hoping the Microsoft name and "social media" branding will disguise the fact that pretty much any feature phone can do the same basic social networking stuff as a Kin -- and often better. Kin Studio, its cloud-based archive of your social networking history -- the one thing that sets it apart from feature phones -- is not worth $30 per month.

I'm not surprised that Verizon is trying to fool young adults into paying $30 more per month than they need to. The phone companies pull this kind of stunt all the time, rivaling only Wall Street in their ethical barrenness. But I am surprised that Microsoft is enabling this behavior. Didn't it learn anything from Vista?

Shame on them both.

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This article, "Beware the smartphone pretenders," was originally published at Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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