Rumors Are Realized in New App Phones

It’s all about the app phones these days, isn’t it?

All the innovation. All the big debuts. All the rumors, gossip, excitement.

Last month, an Apple employee accidentally left a top-secret prototype of the next iPhone in a Silicon Valley bar. Headlines! Scandal! Blogs!

But that’s because it was an app phone. If what he left in the tavern had been some camcorder, GPS unit or Windows PC, it might still be sitting in the lost-and-found box behind the bar.

More recent app-phone buzz: After months of rumors and leaks, Microsoft has just released its new Kin phones for hip young urbanites, and HTC’s Incredible phone started whipping up the Android fanboys. (Android is Google’s operating system for phones.) To differing degrees, these are desirable, noteworthy new phones.

Microsoft Kin
Microsoft Kin

They’re all available from Verizon , possibly the most customer-hostile cell carrier but the one with the best network.

There are two Kin models: the Kin One and the Kin Two, which go for $50 and $100 (after rebate, with a contract).

They run the same operating system (a new one from Microsoft, a precursor to its coming Windows Phone 7 OS). Both are thickish because their screens conceal slide-out thumb keyboards. Each has only four buttons: power, volume, camera and (just below the screen) a Back button. Weird, but it works.

Shape is the primary difference between the One and Two. The more intriguing One is a compact rounded square. If it weren’t made of shiny black plastic, you might mistake it for a flattened brownie.

The Two is a more traditional black rectangle whose screen image rotates with the phone. It’s much easier to type on, of course, because its keyboard luxuriates in so much more space. The Two also has 8 gigabytes of storage (versus 4 on the One); a camera that takes 8-megapixel photos and 720p hi-def videos (instead of 5 megapixels and standard-def video); and, of course, a larger screen.

Now, technically, these aren’t really app phones at all. It’s true that you can do iPhoneish things like swiping to get to the next or previous screen or two-finger spreading to magnify a Web page. Curiously, though, you can’t actually install new programs on them; “Kin App Store” is still a mirage.

Instead, these phones are meant to be communicators for the young and hip. For example, one of the three side-by-side Home screens is a busy vertical stream of updates from your Twitter, MySpace, Facebook buddies; favorite blogs; news items; and so on.

Microsoft had three genuinely great ideas. First, the Kin is a full-blown Zune music player, running the same underappreciated Zune software, with access to the same $15-a-month all-you-can-download music plan.

Second, you can share almost anything — a photo, a Web page, a tweet — by dragging it onto a green dot at the bottom of the screen. It’s a parking place for stuff you mean to blast to your friends.

Microsoft’s masterpiece, though, is Kin Studio. It’s your own personal Web site, a scrolling timeline of everything you’ve done on your phone. Behind the scenes, this site quietly collects a copy of every picture and video you took, every phone number you dialed, every text message you’ve sent. It’s a backup, but it’s also a wild representation of what you’ve been up to (not to mention a dandy piece of evidence in a marital infidelity trial).

Over all, Microsoft has done an excellent job of cramming a hundred features into a very few controls, with a graphic design that’s young and cool without pandering.

But even a 20something might resent the sometimes balky touch screen, the jerky animations and the general cheap-feeling quality (it was made by Sharp, for some reason). And there’s no typing assistance of any kind; this phone doesn’t propose spelling corrections, auto-capitalize sentences or put apostrophes into “dont” and “youre.”

Then there’s the pricing problem. Verizon charges $90 a month, minimum, for a plan with text messaging — the same as you’d pay for a real app phone like a Droid or a Palm Pre. The Kin’s competitors cost a little more but also do so much more — at much greater speeds.

Like, for example, the HTC Incredible.

Designating your phone “Incredible,” by the way, takes chutzpah. Unless it’s a truly magnificent machine, you’re setting yourself up for ridicule. Give us speed, polish and good design, though, and maybe you can lay claim to a name like Incredible.

Actually, HTC pretty much pulls it off.

No app phone has ever been this fast. Everything happens instantly: opening, closing, zooming. The Android software isn’t as easy to navigate as the iPhone’s software — but here, even your mistakes don’t matter as much, because they don’t cost you much time.

More on the Incredible

It’s not design breakthroughs that differentiate this flat black touch-screen slab from its predecessors; the only visible difference is the peculiarly layered back panel, which is terraced like Indonesian rice fields.

No, it’s all about the details. Refine a product enough times, and it can indeed become incredible.

For example, the screen: this one is huge (3.7 inches), bright and colorful. Or the storage: this phone has 8 gigabytes built in, and it has a slot that can accommodate memory cards up to 32 gigabytes. (Some apps, however, don’t work with the card.)

Or the camera — holy cow. It takes 8-megapixel photos, illuminated when necessary by dual LED flashes. It has autofocus, a self-timer and infinite picture controls — and the photos are as good as any you’ve seen from a phone.

The Incredible packs the latest Android version. Among other virtues, it gives you a terrific turn-by-turn GPS navigation system, and it lets you speak to type — an imperfect but often handy feature on a phone, like this one, that has no physical keyboard.

HTC has enhanced Android, too, in a makeover it calls Sense. The Incredible, for example, offers seven Home screens for apps and widgets (not three or five, like most Android phones). You can pinch with two fingers to shrink them into little cards, ready for rearranging. There’s an excellent FM radio that works when the earbuds are plugged in.

An app called Friendstream collects all your friends’ Facebook, Flickr and Twitter updates into a single scrolling feed (as on the Kin). Similarly, when you click a name in your address book, you can see every e-mail message, text message, voice mail, Flickr photo and Facebook update from that person.

No question, the Incredible is the best Android phone so far. But, as everyone keeps asking, is it an iPhone killer?

Well, it comes with a ton of software (or would if software weighed anything), and more features means more complexity. The Incredible is not for the easily overwhelmed. (It took me hours to realize why the screen wasn’t rotating when I turned the phone. It’s because the Incredible’s screen rotates only counterclockwise.)

The apps on Android’s store aren’t generally as good as the ones on Apple’s app store. And for all the controversy about Apple’s app-store gatekeeping, the iPhone store is clearly better curated than the Android store.

The Incredible is much faster and better equipped than the current iPhone — and it doesn’t drop calls in New York and California. But Apple releases a new iPhone every June, and if the one in the Silicon Valley bar is any indication, next month’s offering will be extremely fast and offer some juicy features (its front-side camera suggests that video calling will be available). In other words, the Incredible is a front-runner, but that’s the only foolproof statement at this point.

Meanwhile, rejoice that the one-upsmanship among Microsoft, HTC, Apple and others is heating up. It can only mean more exciting app phones, a greater range of choice and more exciting finds in the lost-and-found bins of American bars.