Online editor @ Kommersant; Publisher @ 30pin. Read more about me. This blog is for articles too specific or personal to be published elsewhere.

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Microsoft Kin Creators Reflect on What Was Cut and Planned

It’s impossible for a company as prolific as Microsoft to not make at least a few stinkers. But their first attempt to release a mobile phone under their own brand could not be described as anything but a disaster. Kin phones, released at the dawn of the current mobile landscape, were discontinued just six weeks after their US launch. It took a multitude of factors to make it fail — the feature set was not great for a targeted demographic, the competition was strong, and Verizon’s plans were just too steep.

Behind the story of a giant company releasing a dud (don’t we all love them, if only instinctively?) lies another one — of hard work and hopes for the future. For all its cons, Kin’s deep social integration, if implemented better, could make a difference in a bloodbath of 2010 mobile phone market.

Instead of making a summary of what we already know of Kin, I’ve decided to talk to people involved in its creation. Not only they shed more light on why Kin turned out to be the way it was, but also showed Microsoft was interested in evolving their phones over time — if only they didn’t flop.

Three-dimensional UI: too much for first-gen Tegra?

Microsoft had the presence in the mobile market since the 1990s, licensing their Windows CE operating system to device manufacturers. Kin One and Kin Two, on the other hand, were the company’s first attempts at releasing its own complete product. They were not traditional smartphones, though, but feature phones with touch controls and a subset of iPhone and Android functionality.

In 2010, before the influx of cheap Android handsets, it was yet sensible to release so-called “touch phones.” Kin phones and their contracts, however, weren’t cheap, and the platform, being targeted to teens and tweens, notably lacked features vital to the digital generation — Internet chats, for example.

The software issues could realistically be resolved over time, as Microsoft implemented an over-the-air update system. The hardware, though, was here to stay, and the choice of components raised the eyebrows even back then. Kin phones marked the first time Tegra, Nvidia’s system-on-a-chip, was used in a mobile phone. But it was the aging APX 2600 chip, first used in Microsoft’s Zune HD media player, while devices powered by next-generation Tegra were already announced at that point.

The chip might be one of the causes for performance woes, documented well enough in regards to both final and pre-release hardware. In 2012, Wired obtained internal videos showing how poorly the system responded to swipes and touches, among other things.

The videos have vanished from the source by now. One of them was uploaded to YouTube; I’ve mirrored it to the Internet Archive.

It’s hard to imagine the UI was initially going to be way more visually impressive. Erik Hunter, who was working for a design studio Method at the time, was responsible for the UI motion design of Kin phones. According to him, Method and Kin’s lead designers collaborated on creating a three-dimensional, motion-rich UI. The look, featuring a drastically different design language, is shown on Hunter’s web site.

“There were lots of interactions which didn’t end being developed, like the motion on the lock screen, the Spot [sharing widget] icon animation, and the scrolling tiles. Most of the interactions and animations we designed ended up not being possible,” says Hunter, citing the processing power and the features being cut in development.

One of the visual features implemented at some point was the 3D effect on the Loop, a home screen displaying social media updates. Chris Furniss, responsible for implementing the UI on device with XAML and Silverlight, was involved in downscaling the designers’ vision to what the hardware was able to do.

“The UI, in general, had a cool parallax effect as you swiped back and forth, or scrolled up and down through your social feed. That had to be cut, which affected the way text had to be layered over photos and so forth,” Furniss explains.

The 3D effect can be seen at 0:20 mark of the video.

Intelligent Spot and prospects of Kin Three

The eye candy wasn’t the only thing that had to be cut. The video above shows the Spot, one of Kin’s trademark features, featuring a dashboard filled with sections and features. In the final version, all it could do is to serve as a drag-and-drop target for SMS, MMS, and email attachments. Even without any social media integration, it was seen as one of the most clever features of the phones.

The concept video, however, shows the Spot not only sending photos to Facebook or Twitter, but serving as a system scrapbook, storing reminders and sets of objects to share. According to Furniss, it was supposed to be even more than that; “a context-sensitive bucket which you could drop anything into and Kin would figure what you were intending.”

“We were never given a reason for why the Spot wasn’t as powerful as we originally designed it,” Hunter adds. He points to the internal conflict between Microsoft’s managers and multiple mobile teams, reported by Engadget at the time, but did not confirm it from his own perspective.

Kin Two had twice the memory over Kin One, as well as better camera.

Kin has almost instantly built the image of a teenager phone — and that’s the case for oddly-shaped Kin One, marketed to pre-teens and teens. Furniss describes that the Kin Two model, looking like a contemporary QWERTY side slider and having better specifications, was aimed at a 25- to 35-year-olds. (Notably, according to him, Kin One was specifically designed to appeal to the female audience, with Kin Two being a “men’s phone.”)

But looking forward, Microsoft and its partners were already planning to reach another demographic. A third developer, who decided to remain anonymous due to NDAs, shared that Kin lineup was going to evolve as the audience captured by first-generation models changed their taste.

“If Microsoft Kin is a mobile device designed specifically for a younger, millennial audience, our job was to think about how the device needs to change as this audience becomes older,” they describe their role in the project. The source states their team researched the potential new audience and outline new features for the future Kin.

The work made by the developer was left unused, as Microsoft embarrassingly discontinued Kin over its low sales. Later that year, unsold phones got a revised firmware which, stripping social and cloud aspects, allowed to resell them as souped-up dumb phones. The failure of Kin, according to Business Insider, sank the morale within Microsoft.

“Leading up to the launch date of Kin, we were really excited. We were all in creative brainstorm mode for the next big thing, and spirits were high,” recalls Furniss the mood across his team just before the historically poor performance.

“We were given lots of room to explore and encouraged to push the boundaries of what can be done in a traditional mobile UI,” says Hunter from his point of view as Method employee.

The last app-less smartphone

Not only Kin phones had not held their value upon release, but they were also out in the most unlikely of times — both by Microsoft’s mobile divisions and the industry as a whole. Windows Mobile, Microsoft’s legacy mobile OS, was on its last legs, with people having high hopes for all-new Windows Phone. Kin’s mobile platform, having no app support as the world was captivated by them, looked out of place both in the market and in Microsoft’s pipeline.

“When Kin was being designed, it was before this huge paradigm shift to consuming everything via platform-specific apps... I don’t think the social media consumers of today are of the same mindset, they are too used to download specific apps for specific services,” reflects Furniss on how Kin, having no social media clients, embedded their feeds in the UI itself.

On a smaller scale, the idea of unified feed was transferred into Windows Phone, as the People app had a “What’s New” screen showing social media updates. But in 2015, as Facebook had to discontinue one of its APIs due to privacy concerns, Microsoft terminated Facebook integration, with apps like Twitter and LinkedIn dropping it afterward because of the public’s general disinterest. In 2018, commenting on yet another privacy scandals, Facebook called early system integrations “Facebook-like experiences.” The choice of words has clearly separated Facebook as used with apps and browsers and deep system integrations.

Kin phones were the only ones which fully bet on experiences, not apps. From Windows Phone to even more obscure platforms like BlackBerry 10 or Nokia Asha, it was usually a combination of two. The most recent feature phone platform, KaiOS, does not even try integrating social media it the system — but it has an app store and support for web apps.

To win that bet, Kin had to either be as good as planned or cost as much as it deserved. Unfortunately for everyone involved in its creation, it did neither.

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As Forbes Cracked Russia Up, I Talked to Local Lemon Experts

Contributing authors are dangerous to any media with a user platform — at least if neglected by the editor.

On Thursday, Lizzy Saxe, a Forbes contributor writing about food and business, submitted an article headlined “Want To Find A Rich Person In Russia? Look For The Lemons.” In the article, Harold Edwards, the CEO of a California-based agricultural company Limoneira expressed his theory of high demand for lemons in Russia. If lemons can’t grow there, he deducted, they should cost a lot, so Russians must use them to “communicate to people that they have the means to be able to afford them.”

Apparently, when I brewed some lemon tea, I was a “wealthy Russian” who “incorporates lemons into my lifestyle.”

The article, while being featured on Forbes’ social media and getting around 25,000 hits by the time of writing, seems to be mostly ignored by the US media. It’s not really a well-researched article to pick up seriously; the piece was based solely on claims of Limoneira’s CEO, with 7 out of 11 paragraphs, the lead one included, featuring him or the company in a positive light.

As the author hadn’t bothered to check whether Edwards was right, the story was widely ridiculed in Russia both on social media and by press outlets. Lemons are, of course, not a “bling of produce” in the country. With the average retail cost of 117.40 rubles per kg in December 2018 (1.74 US$, or around 13 rubles cheaper than a Big Mac), lemons are three times cheaper than in the US, going by US Department of Agriculture’s annual data.

Soviet tradition with imperial roots

While the reasoning was wrong, local analysts confirm the claim which sparked it. According to AB-Centre, an agriculture think tank, Russia is the second biggest importer of lemons, with the top one being the US. With the purchase amount of 213,000 ton in 2018, the sector has not only recovered after the Russian monetary crisis of 2014–2015 but set the all-time record. Analysts note there wasn’t any notable downfall to recover from, though. With price changes not affecting the demand, importers got away with only the slight reduction of the supply.

“The consumption pattern is traditional for Russian culture,” notes Alexei Plugov, AB-Centre’s General Director. “For example, the most popular folk remedy during the flu is to drink lots of lemon tea. It’s similar to tangerines as traditional New Year treats, with most countries not incorporating then into holiday dishes.”

A glass of lemon tea in podstakannik became a staple of train travels in Russia. Credit: Jürg Vollmer, CC BY-SA 3.0

The case for tangerines is worth focusing on a little bit more. For most older Russians, the strong connection between tangerines and New Year celebrations goes back to the Soviet Union, with its short supply to imported fruit. To meet at least some demand for citruses, Russia had to rely on its own resources — or on the resources of other Soviet republics.

Raisa Kulyan, head of the laboratory of fruit crops selection at Russian Research Institute of Floriculture and Subtropical Crops, points to Georgia as the Soviet Union’s main supplier of both lemons and tangerines. Plains of Abkhasia were more suitable for growing lemons on the open field then Krasnodar Krai, the only subtropical region of independent Russia.

“There were more territories, and the subtropical zone was wider. Nowadays, we are limited by Adler and Sochi regions [of Krasnodar Krai],” she says, lamenting the mountainous terrain of Russian subtropics.

The researcher notes we shouldn’t attribute the popularity of lemons in Russia solely to Soviet distribution chains. “Historical background is crucial for their popularity. Not without reason people were growing lemons on their windowsills during the time of Peter the Great,” Kulyan referred to Pavlovo lemonarium near Nizhny Novgorod, in the centre of European Russia.

First mentions of lemons in Russian go beyond the history of the Russian Empire, back to the time of tzars. Domostroy, a 16th-century collection of household rules, mentions recipes and remedies using lemons. Being a popular work, it shows the citrus was not an unwitnessed fruit even for low-ranking nobles.

The quest for Russian lemons

Despite the attempts of local farmers, it’s impossible to stumble upon homegrown lemons in Russian stores. Last year, local manufacturers have just entered the market at the level of the country — as a blip on the chart, with the share less than 0.01%. But Kulyan states more entrepreneurs are interested in growing lemons locally.

According to the scientist, all it takes for lemons to grow is the temperature above 5 °C (41 °F) during the winter — a goal achievable with heated or plastic-sheet greenhouses even in southern Siberia. The most suitable for moderate climate is the Meyer lemon, she says; the low-growing, undemanding cultivar notable for its orange cortex.

Georgiy Siverskiy, an Usbek farmer. Credit: IA Ferghana

In Uzbekistan, a country in Central Asia on the south from Russia, local farmers even adopted them for growing without greenhouses. To shield lemons from cold winds, they grow them in trenches. Bringing them to Russia as “Tashkent lemons,” exporters hope to meet the demand once taken by Spanish and Greek manufacturers barred from selling produce to Russia by economic sanctions. But with a 0.3% share of imported lemons, they have to go a long way — and face Turkey and Argentine keeping more than three-fourths of the production.

To the possible dismay of the head of Limoneira, who claimed Russian favor Californian lemons over any other kind, there was no official import of lemons from the US in both 2017 and 2018.

Add some yellow to a greenback

Joking and being curious simultaneously, some Russians thought Edwards was confused by a Russian vernacular. Popularized in the 1990s, “lemon” means “million” of dollars or rubles in thieves’ slang. With the last syllable stressed, both words sound similar in Russian, with “lemon” being some sort of mangled shortening. According to two philologists reached by a Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, the word first appeared during the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922 accompanied by the depreciation of the ruble. As the Soviet Union collapsed, more people got access to once unimaginable sums of money, reviving the word in process.

The most crucial point right now is, the word got another meaning just for brevity. According to the Leonid Belovinsky, Doctor of History, there was no analogy with actual lemons.

Lemons growing in Bryansk Oblast. Credit: Anatoly Tarantsov, CC BY 3.0

For Russians, lemons might not be metaphorical golden nuggets portrayed by the Forbes’ article, but the country’s fascination with them is worth a deeper look even from within Russia itself. While the article has started just as an exercise in fact checking, it has provided me with a different point of view on a mundane ingredient. From ever-growing supply from abroad to greenhouses in Siberia, Russians’ love for lemons surely goes beyond the imaginary desire to somehow show off.

Meanwhile, Forbes has “corrected” the article “to more accurately reflect social status in Russia” — if the removal of a single paragraph counts as a correction.

The cover photo is composed of “Valencia market – lemons” by Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, and a USSR stamp “Friendship Tree, Sochi with label” (1970), no copyright.

The Russian version of the article is published by Pervoistochnik.

 No comments    324   2019   Features

Writers, Get a Fifteen-Year-Old Mac to Take a Digital Detox

When you spend writing and researching every day for a living, it can be hard to set aside time to do the exact same thing, but for yourself. And when this rare opportunity appears, you want to be as focused as possible.

Shortly after Christmas, at the beginning of Russia’s long public holidays, I’ve tweeted the picture below. It might be a bog-standard New Year post, but there’s a certain oddity in the attached photo: I’ve began 2019 by showing off an iBook G4, made in 2004, not only up and running, but ready for actual work to do on. Indeed, this is the computer I actually work on every time it’s realistically possible, both at home, in the library, or at the café.

These words were typed on this machine, too. But why would I do this, and why would you want to?

A typewriter that’s got ambitions

While I’m keen on old gadgets, I’d be lying if I said they are still as good as they were back on their release date. Sure, every now and then, someone dreams of abandoning a modern phone for a device of yore — the one which holds a charge for a month and doesn’t bother anyone with notifications. The idea, though, falls flat on its face the moment someone actually takes an old Siemens and tries to type a text.

We might live in a crapsack connected world where everyone battles for our data and engagement, but in general, technology did become more capable and easy-to-use. However, since people still feel the urge to distance themselves from modern tech annoyances, there is a market for that. From well-being modes in operating systems to smart feature phones both cheap and premium, a lot of companies want to sell you the idea of a balance between a no-frills approach and modern connectivity options. After all, not being able to go to the Internet, even on weekdays, is just not an option for most of us.

I had no idea an old PowerPC Mac is going to struck the exact balance. What I needed and expected from it is a cheap way to type on the go — a bare minimum for a notebook complimenting a modern desktop PC. The iBook, which was as cheap as a beaten-up Eee PC, was in a reasonable condition and had a fresh battery, and I’d be perfectly fine even if it could only open and save text files.

For some twisted reason, it gave me much more than I expected from a 2004 computer running an OS from 2007. (Could you imagine using Windows Vista on an Intel Pentium M, right now?) Maybe it’s the robustness of Mac OS X, a system I’ve had no prior experience in, or the community trying to keep PowerPC Macs as useful as possible. There is a TenFourFox project which makes an up-to-date web browser based on Firefox, as well as a newer version of WebKit you can patch Safari and other programs with. You won’t get all the bells and whistles of the modern Web, and the performance is a bit poor, but it’s alright for looking things up without messing up with the workflow. I’ve also updated spellchecker dictionaries with cocoAspell, installed Ilya Birman’s keyboard layout for consistency with my PCs, and made a bunch of other tweaks.

But what’s really impressive is how well some things work without any tinkering at all. I’m not even talking about applications with no or few online components, like Pages ‘09 or old builds of f.lux, but about things like iTunes — which still connects to iTunes Store, downloads purchased music and, according to the iBook’s previous owner, translates it via AirPlay. Evernote, a popular note-taking service, managed to shock me with how well its PowerPC Mac client works today — provided you can find the original executable. On its first launch, it politely tells you it’s the last version to support Mac OS X Leopard, and the voice memo recording is disabled on PowerPC, but aside from that, it works and syncs just as you’d expect. It might be even better, as the client doesn’t register towards the limit of clients for the free plan. Even Adobe Digital Edition, as bad as it’s in itself, still allows me to check out books from Internet Archive’s Open Library.

The 4:3 screen makes more sense for doing actual work than the widescreen one. The Verge’s Vlad Savov thinks the same.

Sure, it’s easier to list what iBook G4 can do in 2019 than to name what it cannot — but that’s the entire point. You can browse the Internet, but you can’t procrastinate on YouTube your entire day; you can check your mail, but you’d be hard-pressed to use social media. The elusive middle ground between not being able to do some work and not feeling like you need to do it is here, running on a well-built, laconic hardware. It’s not aluminum PowerBook G4, but it’s nice enough.

Where’s the Nokia Booklet 4G, though?

But no matter how much we would like to see our gadgets work forever, it isn’t going to happen. I expect Evernote to stop working eventually and browser backports to be abandoned — it’s just something you have to keep in mind when talking about software and services. There is a sad tale of a devoted user who kept patching Dropbox client to work on PowerPC Macs but gave up as it kept being updated; “I don’t feel any strength to work with that problem”, they said after almost two years.

The hardware degrades, too, not to mention it’s not really reasonable anymore to carry a 2.2 kg of plastic and silicon everywhere you might want to write. But what to replace it with: a 12-inch MacBook, an iPad Pro, or maybe a 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 – the last one with a decent keyboard?

Each of the options comes with its own weaknesses, but all of them, including the iOS device, are far more capable than their distant predecessor. A testament of technical progress it is, but when we are talking about distraction-free workstations, there is nothing on the market. That means this white, glossy notebook is left without a successor.

Take a look at it — and wait till someone releases a “feature notebook.”

The cover photo by me is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

 No comments    169   2019   Features
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