Since our piece on Wednesday, we’ve had more trusted sources step forward to fill in some blanks and clarify the story behind the amazingly swift fall from grace that Microsoft’s Kin phones have experienced since their launch just a few weeks ago. It’s a fascinating tale, and we wanted to share everything we’ve learned.
Project Pink — the initiative that would ultimately become Kin — began life under the direction of free-spirited exec J Allard even before Microsoft had acquired Danger in early 2008, though the company knew full well that it would ultimately need Danger’s cloud computing expertise to execute on the vision. As it turns out, Danger’s intellectual property was more important to Microsoft than its manpower, which might go a long way toward explaining stories we’ve heard in the past of Danger’s Palo Alto headquarters looking like a ghost town not long after the purchase. Initially, both ODMs and carriers were tripping over each other for the opportunity to be involved and launch the product; ultimately, Sharp and Verizon were selected as the headline partners. Knowing Allard and his track record, the vision was probably grandiose and easy to fall in love with — and needless to say, no one had been quoting a mid-2010 launch back then.
So with Danger filling in the last piece of the puzzle, Allard and his team got underway, completely separate from the Windows Phone (née Windows Mobile) team led by senior vice president Andy Lees. Bear in mind this was before the so-called “reboot” that led to the Windows Phone 7 that we know today; at that point, Microsoft was still cranking on an older vision that would ultimately be scrapped. Whether the initial plan in Pink’s earliest days was to use Danger’s legacy Java-based platform is unclear, but apparently, that plan ultimately evolved: Allard’s intention had still been to avoid Windows Mobile’s underpinnings, but he’d wanted to pull together bits and pieces from across the company — presumably mostly from Zune, which was his baby — to create a new Kin platform that suited the product’s needs, not to share a platform with anything in Lees’ department.
To get anywhere, a project inside Microsoft needs an executive sponsor, and for Pink, Allard had been that guy from day one. It was his baby. Of course, Allard was a visionary, an idea man; Lees — like most Microsoft execs — is a no-nonsense numbers guy, and to put it bluntly, he didn’t like that Pink existed. To quote our sources, Lees was “jealous,” and he was likely concerned that Kin was pulling mindshare (and presumably resources) from Windows Mobile’s roadmap. With enough pressure, Lees ended up getting his way; Pink fell under his charge and Allard was forced into the background.
Having Lees in control changed everything, if for no other reason than he didn’t care about the project at all.
Having Lees in control changed everything, if for no other reason than he didn’t care about the project at all. This was right around the time that Windows Phone 7 was rebooting, and Pink didn’t fit in his game plan; to him, it was little more than a contractual obligation to Verizon, a delivery deadline that needed to be met. Pink — Allard’s vision of it, anyhow — was re-scoped, retooled, and forced onto a more standardized core that better fit in with the Windows Phone roadmap, which in turn pushed back the release date. Ironically, because they had to branch off so early, Kin would ultimately end up with an operating system that shares very little with the release version of Windows Phone 7 anyway.
At some point prior to launch, the Kin team knew it was screwed. We’ve confirmed that Verizon did, in fact, pull the rug out from under them — the planned data pricing had changed and become much more expensive, which was supposed to be one of Kin’s top selling points. Voices on the team about huge, critical missing features like an app store fell on deaf ears, ostensibly because Lees just wanted to get the product out the door to meet the contract and wash his hands of it. The departures of Allard and Bach — which our sources would not blame on Kin, at least not alone — were just what Lees needed to finish Kin off, and that’s exactly what he did earlier this week. We’re told that Kin has sold fewer than 10,000 units in total, and the future of its support — planned software updates and the like — rests largely in Verizon’s hands, since it’s the one and only carrier that will ever have offered it.
While it’s hard to argue that Kin is an awful product, the saddest part of the story is that many of the people responsible for it knew it was — they were largely victims of political circumstance, forced to release a phone that was practically raw in the middle. Though Microsoft’s official stance is that the group is being integrated with the Windows Phone 7 team, it’s a major culture clash — the two groups operated completely independently from one another — and unofficially, Lees’ intention is to keep them out of the first release. In other words, many, if not most Kin staffers are literally twiddling their thumbs at their desks, and it’s unclear who will get to keep their jobs in the long term. No decisions have yet been made about what elements of Kin will find their way into future Windows Phone releases; though Kin One and Kin Two were fatally flawed, there’s no arguing that they’d brought some really great concepts to the table (notably the Kin Studio) that it’d be tragic to see fall through the cracks of a Microsoft conference room.