The Smart Microwave That Wasn't
Why the first wi-fi enabled microwave bombed (and what changed)
High-tech microwaves have gotten a lot of airtime in recent weeks, thanks to Kellyanne Conway’s false claim that the U.S. government spies on people through cameras in them. But in 1998, the microwave industry wasn’t focusing on incorporating spy technology into their products. Rather, executives were trumpeting a then-futuristic innovation that’s entirely mainstream now: Giving a kitchen appliance internet capabilities. That year, CNN wrote an article touting the Microwave Bank, an amazing, life-altering new invention. The piece boasts that this state-of-the-art creation allows users to “cook a chicken while simultaneously checking [their] bank balance” by using touchscreen technology that we all wouldn’t become accustomed to until 10 years later (hello, iPhone).
Even at the time, the idea made people chuckle, but NCR, the company behind the Microwave Bank, thought it was a force to be reckoned with. "This is not Bugs Bunny technology—it works," Bill Wright, director of electronic commerce at NCR, told CNN at the time. "Broaden your mind a minute and realize what delivery methods can be used for e-commerce.”
Laughs aside, it seemed like Wright and his colleagues at NCR were onto something, and the competition was heating up. Roughly 15 months after the Microwave Bank’s debut, the Boston Globe published an article about how Cisco Systems, Inc. was working on a microwave with wireless internet. It boasted having high-speed connectivity, telephone capabilities, and teleconferencing all in a single device. “Wireless is hot this year,” one source declared to the Globe.
However, when we joke now about the archaic inventions we used in yesteryear, the Microwave Bank never comes up amongst talk of Walkmans and VHS tapes. Why did that idea never take off while makers of internet-enabled kitchen appliances see a lot of success in today’s world? There are three main reasons why that invention flopped.
First, NCR, which is still around today, specializes in banking software and technical financial transactions, like building ATMs and not kitchen appliances. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, [a product fails] because of a brand that has no business in a particular space breaks into that space,” says Mark Burstiner, a consumer tech expert who runs his own radio show and YouTube channel on the subject. “They think they see a new opportunity for a new vertical and they want to be the first ones to do it, but they completely ignore the market and focus on what they know how to do well.” Considering that only a little over one-third of Americans had internet access by the start of the 21st century, that market was already small for NCR’s product. On top of that, a touchscreen in the 1990s would feel like a luxury, not a given.
Second, Nick Weaver, founder and CEO of home wifi company Eero, explains that in 1998, most internet connections required cumbersome dial-up modems and other software, and there could only be one computer plugged into dial-up at a time. The Microwave Bank and subsequent attempts at similar devices failed because of the complicated nature of getting internet set up and running in that era; the benefits just didn’t outweigh the time, energy and cost.
Lastly, the Microwave Bank didn’t solve a common pain point for the average consumer. “The deal here is to start the infiltration of robots into our home by having them do the things we don’t want to deal with,” Burstiner says about home-based technology. Americans don’t have an inherent need to look at a bank balance while heating up a breakfast sandwich; they do, however, want their morning coffee ready by the time they groggily stroll into the kitchen before work.
So, what changed between now and then? Weaver says now most tech products solve at least one of three core issues: Safety, security, or convenience. Unsurprisingly, many kitchen gadgets, like ovens that alert you when they’ve reached the correct temperature or refrigerators that can send a grocery lists to your phone, fall into the third category.
Just as crucial, people evolved and swapped dial-up for wifi. “Today it’s about connectivity, where you’ve got ubiquitous wifi coverage that’s reliable and functional,” Weaver notes. Setting up your wifi-enabled coffee maker is as easy as turning it on and connecting it wirelessly to your home router in a matter of seconds.
Did the Microwave Bank ever stand a chance? Probably not, and unfortunately there’s no way to buy a prototype online (believe me, I tried), so you’re stuck with all of your high-tech, actually convenient gadgets for the time being.