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Kin's quiet return a rarity among failed gadgets

Microsoft's Kin can safely be called a tech dud, but now it's back. What's changed this time around? And has this happened with other gadgets?

The resurrected Kin is back on Verizon, with some changes under the hood.
The resurrected Kin is back on Verizon, with some changes under the hood.

Like any other business venture, gadgets fail--some quietly and others spectacularly.

For Microsoft's Kin though, its return this week marks a rarity in the tech world: a product that, despite a strong push from its maker, simply didn't get off the ground, but is then brought back from the dead. No, it's not being touted as the hottest, newest phone by carrier Verizon, which a Microsoft exec once told The New York Times played a part in the device's sales woes the first time around. Rather, it's being offered up for sale alongside phones that did not meet such a quick demise.

The real question is whether anyone in their right mind would buy a Kin now that it's back. Microsoft has very clearly moved on from the prospect of the Kin and focused its efforts on the further development of Windows Phone 7, which launched stateside earlier this month and is headed to Verizon and other CDMA carriers next year. Windows Phone 7 brings things to the table that the Kin does not, like an app store, more hardware variety, and software updates that promise to fix bugs and add features like copy and paste.

There's also a bigger issue, which is that the Kins that Verizon is now selling are dramatically different from than the ones that came out the first time around. Not in the hardware, but in the software.

Neither Microsoft nor Verizon would speak to CNET about whether the new version included bug fixes, or the promise of fixing bugs if they cropped up, but a Verizon representative confirmed that features like the Kin Loop, Kin Spot, Kin Studio, and social-networking integration have all been removed, along with the automatic back-up feature that would sync media and other information up into the cloud. These were all things that separated the Kin from other feature phones.

Because of these changes, Verizon is smartly positioning the Kin as a feature phone, as opposed to a smartphone. That's a far cry from the device's original introduction, which was somewhere in between the two. Arguably one of the Kin's weakest points was its steep data pricing, which came closer to the smartphone class. That's something Verizon has since remedied with a leaner data price that is half the cost of the one the Kin launched with, and can be had at a lower entry price. It's worth pondering if such a plan would have given the Kin more of a chance the first time around.

Few other gadgets have made a return after being shelved. Many companies fix things from failed products and bring them back as new products with a different shell. Something like the not-even-launched Palm Foleo arguably ushered in the Netbook form factor.

As for a true return from the dead, in recent years one of the best examples is Polaroid's digital film, which the company famously discontinued, prompting a group to produce its own replacement. Polaroid then surprised everyone by producing new instant cameras, though ones that used film from Fujifilm. The comparison might be a tad unfair considering Polaroid film enjoyed years of popularity prior to its demise (unlike the Kin), and that it was more a victim of a major shift in technology as film went from analog to digital.

Still, some of the same parallels can be drawn with the Kin. Consumer buying habits have made a strong shift towards smartphones, as recent research from Gartner pointed out. Carriers have also attempted to make the transition a little easier with multi-tier data plans that can get users in the door for under $20 a month, as opposed to what was once the standard $60 or higher. While the Kin may no longer be in that tier of products, those spare Kin units may be snapped up during the holidays by people looking to get a feature phone with a decent music player.

The simple answer for all this may just be that Verizon had a bunch of phones sitting in a warehouse somewhere. The new question is how long they'll stay there.