My Secret Project is no longer secret: the KIN phone

Since the demise of HD DVD (RIP) I have been working on the secret “Pink project” at Microsoft, which yesterday had its coming-out party under the name of KIN. Microsoft is usually not good at keeping secrets, so it has been a unusual two years of development for me for that reason.

Many Microsoft projects cannot be secret because they are part of a (often gigantic) third-party ecosystem, and those third-parties must have timely access to said projects well before completion. I mean it wouldn’t be much good to keep Windows releases secret once they get to the alpha stage unless Microsoft wanted to break piles of existing Windows applications and drivers (or as I like to say “do an Apple”).

A few Microsoft projects did stay secret until almost the end, Xbox and Zune being the most obvious examples, and they happen to be in the same division as KIN (Entertainment & Devices). They also share other similarities, such as consisting of hardware, client software and server software. It is not easy to keep such a wide variety of information secret, and the problem gets worse as the team size increases. This is one area where Apple clearly have it figured out, although by taking things to extremes (e.g. red lights above office doors to indicate when a device is exposed to the air)

For example until Monday morning most of the KIN engineering team did not know the actual name of the product. All daily client software builds up until today announced themselves as “ZZZZ” and used a fake logo, so we could develop the entire software stack (and build pre-release hardware) without knowing the actual product name. A select few engineers were entrusted with the secret: a special branch of the source tree was created into which the actual brand name changes were checked in, built and tested, but only those lucky few had access to it. That all changed with Monday’s build which had the final text and graphics changes of course.

Microsoft has had a varied track record of product names, with some not so great (“Windows Live Search” anyone?) and some much more successful (“Xbox”, “Bing”), so I am pleased that our product name is short, sweet, and easy to remember. It even works as a verb (“I kinned that earlier”) which is the Google test of a decent brand name I guess.

Keeping the name secret is one thing, but keeping actual hardware secret is quite another, especially when that hardware has to be used out in the real world as a part of development and testing. To this end both models had “ugly kits” made for them, large black rubber cases that completely disguised their form factors. For the KIN Two it also made the device very bulky in one’s pocket, but these were necessary to prevent leaks, and it worked out well. The only leaks we had were CGI renderings of prototypes and a very fuzzy screenshot.

As of today so much that was secret is now public: not just the name and the hardware, but the capabilities and the feature set as well. There are a few things that are not yet public, such as the exact release dates and pricing, but these are for our partners to announce in due course. I am very excited that the product is now announced and folks can get an idea of what we have been up to. I’m looking forward to seeing production devices in stores next.