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Why do microwaves all have different controls? (jf.posterous.com)
39 points by coloneltcb 1812 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

I know that hating on patents for being the cause of all the world's ills is hip these days... but this is about the worst submission I've ever seen on the HN front page.

1. The author has lumped a bunch of utility and design patents together without apparently realizing that they aren't at all the same.

2. Many of these patents have expired.

3. There's no discussion whatsoever of why he thinks patents are to blame here. Just "I wonder why this is... I BET IT'S PATENTS."

4. Given the other painfully obvious issues with this post, I hesitate to mention it, but... come on, people. Look at the fucking claims. If you can't be bothered to even mention the claims, you have no business making wild assertions about patents. It just looks ridiculous and ignorant.

I have to agree with this, I think its a reasonable hypothesis that patents are the issue but doing the legwork then to figure out if in fact they are involved should be pretty straight forward.

That said, I don't think the author of the post cares all that much, looks like they are just speculating. Which brings us to the question of why is it on the front page?

My hypothesis for that is that people vote it up hoping that others who understand the patent system will comment and either validate or invalidate the author's hypothesis, thus completing the thought. The only way to prevent such abuse is to flag the link which doesn't capture a lot of nuance.

Of course I can't do the legwork on my hypothesis without doing a poll, doesn't look like polls have been re-enabled and frankly I don't know how accurate such a poll would be.

The problem with that explanation is that half of those patents were filed in the 1970s or 1980s and should be expired by now. So go through the expired ones and so long as you don't infringe on the newer patents then it is ok to use it royalty free. That is the whole point of the patent after all - once it expires, everyone can benefit from the invention, not just the inventor and his/her customers.

Honestly, the best microwave control panel I ever used was a simple rotary knob to set the time, and a three-way "high-medium-low" power switch. Covered 95% of use cases with absolutely no confusion.

Most modern microwaves seem to have the common functionality of 30 seconds at high power if you just hit start with no other options. At least in my small sample size.

That is the only button I ever use on microwaves. The utility other buttons have over it isn't worth the time it takes to figure them out.

This, and the ability to add or remove 10 seconds from the current time (while it's on), are the two main features I consider indispensable on a microwave apart from the time entry.

Tog on Interfaces or someone has a classic rant on this topic. The correct way to use the number pad on a microwave is usually: Press 1 1 1 Start. It is never correct to press more than one digit button.

Yes! We had one of those it was the first microwave my family ever bought it was in the early 80s quite forward for us little folks.

The rotary knob was the best I really miss it. The other great feature was the handle a big actual handle you pulled to open not those push in plastic indents.

The "beast" lasted for a good two decades before my parents had to buy a new microwave which broke in about a year. Now they are on microwave oven number three and it's already falling apart.

I have some real problems with the knob idea. Firstly, it's not fine-grained enough; I often want to put something in for a time that's not a multiple of 15 seconds. (And the longer you go, the worse the resolution gets.) Secondly, for the rare case when something does need to be microwaved for a long time, it makes inputting that time linear in the amount of time when it could be logarithmic!

When do you need that? If 10sec makes a difference, over level is likely too high.

A knob is nice but was that one accurate for times of less than a minute? Sometimes I want 30 seconds and I don't want to babysit the timer.

I think my last microwave had a knob that did 10 second increments up to 60 seconds, and at some point started skipping to 30 second or 1 min increments.

A rotary knob is so extremly inferior to my old, old, almost 10 year old one which can be programmed with several step.

It got 2 row of buttons. one for speed, one for time duration. Add two or more different speeds, and one will start after the other. Simple as can be but very useful feature.

Honestly this hasn't been my experience with microwaves at all. To cook something for 1:30, I just press "1" "3" "0" and then start. Maybe I've gotten lucky, but every microwave I've used has the number keypad and a start button.

I've got an Emerson microwave here. Pressing 1 immediately starts it cooking for 1 minute.

There is no obvious button to push to enter a specific time. The proper button turns out to be labelled "power". Pressing this multiple times will cycle through the power settings, and then allows a time to be entered in the way you describe.

Discovering this took Googling.

I've owned and used microwaves since 1977, and indeed the majority of them have worked this way. Not all, however.

But I don't think the variations from this de facto standard have anything to do with patents. I think it's more the "NIH factor" ("Not Invented Here").

Mine makes you find and press a "cook time" button before you can enter a time, then a start button to actually start the cooking.

This button is hidden so well that years later, I still have to look for it. Grrr.

And unlike the cook timer, the just-time timer beep doesn't stop when you press Stop. You must press the timer again.

On a lot of microwaves I've used, I've needed to press some sort of "cook" button somewhere in the button sequence.

The another type of controls:

3 = 3min

then there is a 30sec button that increments by 30secs. There is no entering of say, 3min 45sec

Even better, hit 1-3-3. Or 1-1-1.



I have a difficult time believing that. As someone who made a living repairing appliances, the microwave is one of the most simple. Often you will find a complete instruction guide for the repair inside, provided by the manufacturer. Components are easily removable and replaceable.

The same reason Android devices and PCs come with bloatware.

Because some executive somewhere can't stand the thought that they are selling a box which converts electricity into useful work, is indistinguishable from the competitor's product, and hasn't really changed in decades.

I think the same thing different box idea has more merit than the patent idea. Microwaves have been around for decades. Patents last 15? 20? years?

Plenty of good ideas for microwave interfaces must no longer be patented. But if you have the same layout as the next guy (and your own older models) the only things you can compete on are (perceived) build quality and price.

Did you even read the article?

Besides, bloatware doesn't exist for your reason anyway. Bloatware exists entirely because software developers will pay hardware manufacturers lots of money to put their product in front of new users.

Yes, I did. I know that's the main reason for bloatware, but the justification, the part that lets them sleep at night, is that they are adding value with their shitty software:

>The preloaded apps “highlight the key features and performance” of the Vibrant, says a Samsung representative.They are there are to showcase the phone’s processor and display, a T-Mobile spokesperson told Wired.com.


Given the fact that common european microwave has two big mechanical knobs (timer and "power" typically implemented as fairly slow PWM, probably mostly mechanically) and door switch for power switch it seems to me that overly complex UI of other microwaves (as well as existence of these patents) seems to me being primarily motivated by someone trying to market microwave as high-tech gadget instead of simple kitchen appliance.

> Did you even read the article?

Yes, but the article is terrible. And the comment you replied to is probably a lot closer to the truth.

What I wonder is why when I buy a microwave, I'm stuck with just one set of controls.

My HVAC gives me a choice of thermostats. There's a standard "API" for talking with HVAC's over a few wires and I choose my interface. If I'm feeling all Star-Trek, I get a NEST. If I just want something simple, I can get a gizmo with a slider, a spring, and a mercury switch that was made in the 60's from a thrift store.

Now that touch screens are ubiquitous and practically free, (and in my pocket all the time) why I'm I stuck with some ridiculous amalgamation of knobs and buttons that seems to have no thought at all given to usability. Would it be so much harder to include a simple default that could be re-flashed, replaced, or augmented?

Its not just microwaves, mind you. Cable set top boxes have been reliably irritating me for decades. I posted a rant, complete with tech demo a few weeks back. Here's how I want the world to work:


Serious question: Is there a "mute" button in any of those patents?

Even though microwaves keep getting control panels with more buttons, they never seem to get rid of the annoying "beep" everytime you press a button. It just seems like a counter incentive to use the microwave extra options.

Microwaves are not the only appliance that does that... I just replaced my washing machine the other day and now it just beeps for every reason (also, I'm pretty sure the beep makes the same sound as coins in super mario, which feels kind of weird).

Why is this? What's wrong with just having a beep when the food is ready (or maybe not even that) like in the older microwaves? Is it to help blind people? If so, wouldn't the old rotary knob be better?

I hate using a microwave when other people are sleeping. Loud beeps on every button press. Beeps at 30 second intervals saying it done (as if something terrible will happen if you don't rescue your food!). Even opening and closing the door makes an excessively loud noise.

Personally I've gotten quite good at estimating when the microwave is under 10 and stopping it right at 1, however I've never seen anyone else resort to this behavior so I feel awkward about it.

I do it all the time. I'm so OCD about it, I even do it before other people's food is about to beep.

Microwaves generally have an obscure settings menu where you can disable things like that.

I can speak a little from my experience in electronics at GE Appliances. I hated most of interfaces we put on things, but that wasn't my call to make in engineering. I seriously doubt it's a patent thing. Note that we didn't make microwaves -- we outsourced them. There aren't a lot of companies that make them any more. Competition is primarily on price. You want to keep costs low -- R&D, development, manufacture and warranty. Justifying an increase of pennies per unit is tough in that environment if you can't prove a direct increase in sales. Think of decisions being made with the mindset that you don't get promoted by increasing the cost 50 cents per board. ;)

A few ideas come to mind... In no order of importance.

* Obscure and unused functionality complicating the device? (What do you get when you combine a microwave and a computer? A computer! [thnx Alan Cooper])

* Patents on the physical interface forcing competitors to use different designs (covered in article)

* Physical interfaces different to differentiate themselves from competitors

* Marketing scheme to make a device look more powerful than last year's model by following modern trends (usually towards more complexity)

* Actual innovations in microwave UI design (does sometime happen)

I'm sure I missed some. Anyone want to point out more?

Desire to create something new rather than re-use existing design.

I can definitely see that. A creative opportunity for fun or profit. :)

From my experience, ovens these days are not any easier to use control wise.

For example, I have to press a separate cancel button for the oven timer and to turn the oven off. How many times would you want to keep the timer on, but turn the oven off? My parents oven from the early 90s did turn off both and I didn't realize how useful such small things were until you lose them. I think interfaces for kitchen appliances have gotten worse in many cases since then.

For my microwave (a Samsung), I have to explicitly hit the timer button to start the timer for it (not to cook, just the timer), instead of just typing the the time and pressing start. Also, the start button does not work, I must push an explicit timer on/off button. Just ridiculous.

The microwave does have an "add 30 seconds timer." However, if I want to use it after checking to see if my food is hot enough, I have to hit the start button to turn the microwave back on first and then hit "add 30 seconds." Just drives me crazy as the 30 second button should turn it back on as well. My old microwave (an LG) did have this functionality and I miss it.

I only assume the designers of these appliances assumed that being as brutally explicit as possible would help those that have issues with technology more, but I think it has the opposite effect.

When I was attending the University of Southern California, I learned that Steven Sample, president of the University, has "patents in the field of digital appliance controls that have been licensed to practically every major manufacturer of appliance controls and microwave ovens in the world. More than 300 million home appliances have been built using his inventions."

I have no idea whether patents are the reason for the differing controls, but I just thought I'd share this interesting fact.

While we're talking about Microwave UX .. what is "High, Medium, Low"?? My current microwave is 1200W. My first was 800W.

A 1200W microwave should have settings 400, 600, 800, 1000, 1200 and an 800W microwave would be missing the 100W and 1200W settings.

That way, my mac-n-cheese would say "Cook on 1000W for 5 minutes" and it would work on EVERY microwave.

Magnetrons don't work that way sadly - you can't easily change their design power. This is why the microwave power setting is fractional time based.

Which is why I didn't designate them as 600W, but just '600'. It's a standard which means your food will get hit with the equivalent of half the energy of your 1200W microwave. (Which, in most cases, is 50% on + 50% off. Which my current microwave calls "Medium" maybe?)

Not the point, is it? 50 percent of a 1000W oven is basically 500W. W is energy / time, which is compatible with time division.

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