The new Oster Perfectionist has 63 settings, touch bubbles in stead of dials, an LCD display screen, and a thick owners manual.
It's a toaster.
The Detroit Free Press technology writer reviewed it recently and said something that scared me: “The LCD (liquid crystal display) is harder to see than the LEDs (light emitting diodes) on my old toaster, and those touch bubbles sometimes have to be pushed hard to register. Plus, I wish the Perfectionist's controls were all on one end.”
Multiple controls? LCDs, LEDs, touch bubbles? I have an Oster, too. It has a dial with numbers. Set it on “1” and you get a piece of hot bread. Set it on “10” and you get a piece of charcoal. Set it somewhere in between and you get toast. What else do you need?
To be fair, the review says the Perfectionist does a much better job of perfectly browning English muffins than a regular toaster, which costs about $19.99. Even so, my guess is that the $59.99 Perfectionist isn't destined to become a big seller in this post Sept. 11 recessionary world. The value just isn't there.
Don't get me wrong, I love gadgets. I'm an avid Palm user, and one of the main reasons I got it is because I can connect it to this really cool collapsible keyboard. Even when I'm buying mundane devices like computer printers, I want the latest, fastest model I can afford. I love being connected to the Internet, too, and getting e-mails from companies I like notifying me of special deals and when my airline seat has been upgraded.
But $60 for a toaster that has lots of buttons and only excels at browning English muffins? I don't think so.
Most importantly, I do not need another device in my life that requires lengthy instruction on its proper use and maintenance. That is, unless it can entertain me and impresses my friends.
This is a big part of the challenge auto makers face with integrating technology into future vehicles. Consumer attitudes about what they value are dauntingly fickle, and vary according to age and culture.
What's more, lots of advanced features don't always translate into increased perceived value. If you add another 20 features to a Timex digital watch, it doesn't get any closer to equaling an old-fashioned analog Rolex in value.
Unfortunately for auto makers, the criteria most consumers have for measuring the value of technology is as vague and gradated as the dial on my low-tech toaster.
There are a few light and flaky “1s” out there, for instance, that are easily impressed. They're the ones that eagerly agree that Dean Kamen's Segway electric scooter — an alternative to walking that costs $10,000 — is going to somehow “change the world.” At the “10” end of the dial are a few burnt-to-a-crisp souls, who, like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, believe all technology is harmful and evil.
Everyone else, of course, is somewhere in between. Unfortunately even these attitudes are highly changeable and can vary on a daily basis.
Kaczynski may be crazy, but who hasn't fantasized about beating their laptop into little pieces with a sledgehammer and moving to a peaceful, one-room shack in Montana, especially after a particularly awful day trying to cope with crashing Internet servers and morons on the expressway yapping on cell phones? Certainly I have. That puts me to around 7 on the technology tolerance dial.
On the other hand, the Segway may seem silly to me now, but I remember 20 years ago when I thought heated seats were a ridiculous extravagance, and I remember 10 years ago when I thought electronic key fobs would be a short-lived gimmick. Now I won't buy a vehicle without heated seats, and key fobs will soon be more common than keys. Maybe you'd better move me back to around 5 on the tech dial.
Putting me in the middle of the dial is the only way I can explain why I think two of the most interesting cars I've driven in the past year are the7-Series and the Opel Speedster. You couldn't find two more starkly different vehicles. The 7-Series is perhaps the most sophisticated thing with four wheels on the road anywhere, and it's hideously complex. The Speedster is so simple it's crude. In fact, it's a perfectly miserable little car except for three things: it looks great, it's really fun to drive and it's affordable. Forget about an Internet connection — the Speedster doesn't even have carpeting.
Which do I prefer? Depends on what kind of mood I'm in.
This underscores the challenge OEMs face with technology in the future, especially when they're working with lead times that are three years or longer.
One thing is certain: Those who make bad choices will be toast.
Listen to Drew Winter and other Ward's editors Monday and Thursday on WJR 760 AM radio in Detroit.