Why You May Love an Amazon Alexa Microwave

Amazon is all-in on Alexa, and this week, it revealed a new set of voice-enabled products ranging from a a wall clock to a doodad that goes in your car. The star and symbol for this bold new wave of Alexa devices? The AmazonBasics Microwave.

At a glance, it looks identical to every other 700W microwave, but it has some new tricks. By touching the Alexa button on it, you can ping a nearby Echo speaker, which will let you tell the microwave what you want to cook. In demos, Amazon showed how you could ask to cook “one potato,” commanding the microwave to heat a potato like only a microwave can.

OK, OK, so asking Alexa to cook a potato doesn’t sound all that profound. Many Twitter users poked fun at the idea, and some publications have suggested it’s “unnecessary” or wondered if “we really need” a smart microwave.

Of course, the answer is no. But if Amazon gets it right, a voice-controlled microwave could bring this dated device into the 21st century.

Fixing the Microwave

Regular old microwaves still work as well as they did in the 1970s, when they first became a thing people put in their kitchens. That’s the problem. It’s an appliance that’s hardly changed in half a century.

Most households own a microwave oven, but sales peaked in the mid-2000s and haven’t grown since. In 2014, Quartz dug into what it saw as the slow death of the microwave oven, pinning the lack of growth on a lot of possible culprits, from healthy eating to toaster ovens. But a lack of innovation has also contributed.

Microwave oven interfaces are deceptively complex, full of annoying button combinations. If you have a modern microwave, it probably came with 10 power levels and a bunch of pre-programmed modes to defrost, heat from frozen, melt or soften items, and cook a variety of foods. These handy presets can make the cheese on a slice of pizza melt rather than go rubbery, or heat two cups of frozen vegetables just right.

Most microwaves already know how long to cook something based on food type and portion. Unfortunately, they’re really difficult to remember how to use. Sometimes there’s a chart behind the door; other times, you have to keep the user manual handy to fully operate your microwave.

Here’s an example: To heat frozen vegetables in my microwave, you have to press the “cook” button, wait, then press 5, wait, then press 2. There are more than 80 button combinations that you have to memorize to use it precisely. A lot of microwaves are like this. It’s no wonder that most frozen meals just say “heat on high for three minutes.”

Every microwave has different presets with different button combinations that do different things. It’s more difficult than memorizing attack combos in Street Fighter II. No one should have to remember all that.

If Amazon gets its new microwave right, it could really improve the experience. Instead of using those horrible button combos, we could begin to tell our microwave the gist of what we want it to do—”defrost two cups of frozen peas”—and let it do the heavy lifting. The company says that at launch, the microwave should be able to defrost several types of foods, like vegetables or chicken, by varying the microwave’s power level, as well as adjust the cook time. It could mean a lot fewer undercooked potatoes and far less exploding tomato sauce in our future.

Standard microwaves can’t learn new tricks, but Alexa can. Amazon could continually refine the software with new foods, meaning a voice-connected microwave may actually get better over time. It’ll be no time before Google introduces one of its own.

Better Nuking Ahead

Of course, Amazon’s microwave may not live up to its potential. We weren’t all that impressed with GE’s Smart Countertop Microwave, which also comes with Alexa compatibility. In that device, Alexa doesn’t actually vary the power level or do all that much.

And talking to the microwave isn’t always convenient. It takes less time to press the “add 30 seconds” button than to press the Alexa button, then ask Alexa to add 30 seconds. You can command Alexa to stop the microwave, but why would you do that when you could just push a button yourself? You have to open the door to get your food, after all.

Then there are the privacy pitfalls. Do we really want Amazon to keep a detailed log of all our microwave use? Overzealous data logging is a problem with almost every new connected device—and a microwave might not benefit us enough to make the privacy tradeoff worth it.

Amazon hopes the extremely low price will ward off those concerns. At $60, the AmazonBasics Microwave is nearly half the price of some competitors. That alone will convince some people to try it.

Microwaves are imperfect tech, and voice control alone can’t make your frozen dinner taste better. But there’s a good chance you’re not making use of the helpful presets already built into yours. If Alexa succeeds, and I can forget how long it takes to cook a potato or the mind-numbing button combination I need to defrost veggies in the microwave, count me in.

The Stubborn Bike Commuter Gap Between American Cities

Cycle commuting is hot.

Warm, at least.

Depending on where you’re living. Each year, the League of American Bicyclists, a nationwide cycling advocacy organization, takes a look at the annual commuting numbers out of the American Community Survey. The ACS is a product from the US Census Bureau, and if you’re a cycling advocate, it asks one particularly helpful question every year: “How did this person usually get to work last week?” The League of American Bicyclists took last year’s respondents’ answers to these questions—as they have for the past five years—and broke them out by city to answer another helpful question: Where is American cycling growing?

Some quick caveats. The ACS data doesn’t capture the number of folks who are cycling for fun or to run errands. (Note: the number of bike-share trips were up dramatically last year.) People who cycle to a bus or train station might only report the public transit leg of their commute. The data might not take into account those who cycle to work one or two times a week, instead of every day. And because it limits respondents’ answers to a single week, it might not capture people who cycle seasonally, strategically avoiding a bicycle commute at the sweaty height of summer or frozen depths of winter. (The Census Bureau solicits survey responses from about 3.5 million Americans throughout the year.)

All that said: In 2017, according the ACS, the share of commuters cycling to work actually dipped by 4.7 percent compared to the year previous. Less than one percent of American commuters regularly use their bicycles to get to work. But 84 percent of the seventy largest cities in the US have seen an upward cycle commute trend over the past twelve years.

The most interesting trend in these numbers—and certainly not a new one—is the uncovering of a profound cycle commuting gap. In the five US cities with the highest share of cycle commuters (Davis, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto, California, plus Boulder, Colorado, and Somerville, Massachusetts), an average 11.7 percent took bicycles to work last year. But in the next five (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berkeley, California, Miami Beach, Florida, Portland, Oregon, and Ames, Iowa), just 7 percent cycle commutes. Take cities 20 to 25 (Redwood and San Francisco, California, Bloomington, Indiana, Portland, Maine, and Salt Lake City), and just 3.1 percent of those cities take bikes to work. You’re either a cycling city, one that opens its arms wide to welcome the two-wheels—or hardly one at alll.

“I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m always a little bit surprised by the difference between the regions and just how far ahead western cities tend to be compared to every other region,” says Ken McLeod, the League of American Bicyclists’ policy director, who wrote the report. In the West’s top 20 cycling cities, an average 5.9 percent of commuters cycle to work. But just 2.2 percent of workers pedal to the office in the Midwest’s top twenty cities. It’s 2.1 percent in the South. Maybe most surprising of all: the American East, known for its dense, urban places that should be hospitable to cycling, just 2.5 percent of those in the region’s top 20 cycling cities actually cycle to work.

The chasm seems to be a function of city investment. “In most, if not all places that have have sustained increases in bicycling commuting, there have been investments in bicycle infrastructure—roadways that account for people on bikes and people walking,” McLeod says. “Those places have tried to reduce speeds and make driving safer, too, so people feel safer while biking.”

In Washington, DC, for example, where cycle commuting grew more than doubled between 2006 and 2017, the city has added about 80 miles of bike lanes since the turn of the century. It wants to build at least 50 miles more by 2020—and it wants most of those to be protected (i.e., more than a strip of paint). In fact, DC is the fastest-growing cycle commuting town in the country. Infrastructure works.

Of course, spreading the cycling revolution will take more than kindly asking cities to pretty please emulate DC or others with fast-growing cycle commuting populations, like Portland, Oregon, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Cycling advocates say it’s a matter of making bicycle-friendly street design standards, well, standard, across many cities.

Some good news on that front: As Streetsblog first reported this week, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials—the macher of American transportation design, which puts out highly influential engineering manuals used the country over—is revamping its bike guide. For the first time, the guide might include more cycling-safe infrastructure, like protected intersections and parking protected bike lanes. Engineering manuals may sound boring, but they’re how even understaffed cities can justify putting in different sorts of infrastructure. So they could be the key to getting more people cycling, everywhere. Way more than one percent.


More Great WIRED Stories