Back in the 90s and early 2000s, whenever a company wanted to get early buzz for a product, they’d send it over to Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal to give it a test run.
Of course, doing so always came with a certain amount of risk since Walt always tells it as it is, and if your product didn’t meet with his stringent requirements for useability and utility, Walt’s review could be the death knell for a product. Conversely, if he liked it, more often than not it would catapult a product into the must have category and holiday buy lists.
Nowadays with the proliferation of blogs and technology journalists, there are a thousand Walt Mossbergs (including Walt Mossberg), and while the technology reviewer may not have quite as much sway in the era of crowdsourced reviews on sites like Amazon, a critical review of a new product can still be painful for a company trying to convince consumers to buy its product.
Which brings us to the recent review of the June Intelligent Oven over at FastCo Design, a popular site which often has thoughtful reviews on new products. The review’s headline is the cringe-inducing (if you’re June, at least) “This $1,500 Toaster Oven Is Everything That’s Wrong With Silicon Valley Design”.
Of course, there were more positive reviews, but the review by Mark Wilson hits the June on a number of fronts, including some apparent bugs – “the June was texting messages like “NOTIFCATION_ETA_PESSIMISTIC” – as well as not performing as promised when it came to things like cook time.
But there are also bigger critiques in the piece, including Wilson’s belief that the June has overpromised on the simplicity of cooking with the device:
“‘[The] salmon’s incredible,” Van Horn had bragged earlier. Which seemed a stretch to me: “The salmon’s incredible” is what a waiter tells you when somebody at your table can’t eat gluten. Objectively, the fish was cooked to temperature and still moist enough—which you could have done in any oven, really.’
This salmon had become more distracting to babysit than if I’d just cooked it on my own. This salmon had become a metaphor for Silicon Valley itself. Automated yet distracting. Boastful yet mediocre. Confident yet wrong. Most of all, the June is a product built less for you, the user, and more for its own ever-impending perfection as a platform. When you cook salmon wrong, you learn about cooking it right.”
And perhaps the biggest problem Wilson had with the June was the very fact it was trying to automate the process of cooking itself.
“June is taking something important away from the cooking process: the home cook’s ability to observe and learn. The sizzle of a steak on a pan will tell you if it’s hot enough. The smell will tell you when it starts to brown. These are soft skills that we gain through practice over time. June eliminates this self-education. Instead of teaching ourselves to cook, we’re teaching a machine to cook. And while that might make a product more valuable in the long term for a greater number of users, it’s inherently less valuable to us as individuals, if for no other reason than that even in the best-case scenarios of machine learning, we all have individual tastes. And what averages out across millions of people may end up tasting pretty . . . average.”
So what are we to take from all of this? Are Wilson’s points that technology can get in the way of cooking and make things more complicated, and that by using the June a home cook is essentially foregoing the process of learning and the multisensory experience of cooking valid?
Yes, to a point. While we should note this is just one review, the reality is that the June Oven is an early attempt at using advanced technology to improve the experience cooking by making the process easier.
But what the reviewer misses in his despair about how automation will sacrifice the craft and experience of cooking is that there are many different types of consumers and cooks, including some who would gladly forego the complexity and effort required to get a tasty meal on the table.
And while June’s first attempt at using advanced image recognition and automated cooking may not yet be perfect, it’s an interesting first try that will improve over time. As Nikhil Bhogal, the CTO of June, said at the Smart Kitchen Summit, “Part of the approach (of building a new product) should be building with headroom to grow.”
In other words, one advantage a product like June has is an ability to improve in the field. Other less technologically advanced products are what they are; once they land in a consumer’s home, their problems likely won’t go away.
Of course, Wilson is not reviewing a future product, he’s reviewing the current June Oven, a $1,500 countertop oven with some useability issues and one that comes with lots of promises. He’s completely right to review the product as it performs today, warts and all.
But I would also suggest before he dismisses the idea of advanced technology like automation in the kitchen, he try products like the Joule from ChefSteps or the Hestan Cue. These products are simpler than the June (and also much lower priced, which helps), but they also do what good tools should do: add simplicity while also elevating a person’s skills. Both use light guidance mechanisms in the form of helpful videos and sensory awareness to make cooking easier, but also only take partial control of the process and allow the home chef to not only experience the act of cooking, but also learn while they are doing it.
And he might also try a Thermomix, the closest thing I’ve used to a really useful “cooking robot” (even though they wouldn’t describe it that way), in that it can almost fully automate a meal like risotto or pasta for you. There’s a reason why the Thermomix has sold millions of its generation 5 multicooker in Europe and that’s because some of us, on some nights, just want someone – or some thing – to make us a tasty meal.
And I imagine a good meal is something even cantankerous product reviewers like Walt Mossberg may even enjoy from time to time.