The Guardian asks, "are our appliances getting too complicated?" No, they’re not

So-called "function inflation" can actually make our lives simpler.

There was a funny old piece in the Guardian yesterday that was of the opinion that household appliances like toasters and washing machines are getting far too complicated, leaving us baffled, bamboozled and befuddled as to how to use them. This is clearly errant nonsense, in my most humble of opinions.

Unlike the author of the piece, I have far more faith in the average consumer’s ability to comprehend that, for example, the Breville VTT377 4 Slice Toaster’s “high lift” feature is just that – the fact that when you want to get your toast out it lifts it slightly higher, so that you don’t have to burn your fingers trying to retrieve a smaller piece of toast.

“Variable browning” is scoffed at as if it’s some marketing mumbo jumbo, when in fact it just means you can alter how brown you want your toast. Get out of here – the brownness of your toast is variable? How over-complicated! As for the ‘reheat’ and ‘defrost’ functions, how dare anyone want to toast some frozen bread, or warm up but not burn some toast they made earlier? Heresy!

Much is made of the complexity of washing machines, which now have a supposedly bewildering array of programs. The author bemoans the fact that machines now have, “duvet", "sports", "bed and bath", "reduced creases", "allergy" and "freshen up" cycles. If this is terribly complicated for the average punter, I’m clearly missing something. The duvet cycle is for when you need to wash a duvet. Sports would be for sports gear, bed and bath is for bedding and towels, reduced creases is for stuff that’ll need an iron, and "freshen up" uses steam instead of water to take creases out of clean or very lightly-soiled items (depending on the exact model, natch).

None of this is exactly rocket science. It doesn’t take a genius to think to turn the dial to "duvet" if they have just stuffed a duvet in it. Or to turn it to "Cottons 30 degrees" if they want to wash some cottons at 30 degrees, for that matter.

Many of those who left comments are unconvinced. Some bemoaned the fact that washing machines used to have only three dials, for temperature, load and spin speed. “When this needed replacing the range of wash options available on the new machines was mind boggling,” according to a commenter called Thegecko. But let’s just think about that. Let’s say there were nine temperature options on one dial, two load settings on another, and five spin speeds on the third. How many possible combinations are there? 90, by my (I admit pretty rusty) maths. Makes the number of programs on a modern machine look positively sparse. Also, if I know little about laundry, where do I set each of those three dials to wash all my woolly cardies? On a modern machine, I would simply turn the dial to ‘woolens’. Which is really the simpler system?

Similarly, while an old toaster only had one knob, that one knob would get a lot of use. You’d forever be fiddling about with it depending on the thickness of the bread, whether it was frozen or not, whether you were reheating toast and so on. Would you remember where on the one dial is best for all of these? Or would it be easier to hit a ‘frozen’ or ‘reheat’ button and let the toaster do the rest?

The Bosch TWK8631GB Styline Kettle is in trouble too, for its ability to, “Heat water to your choice of 70°C (white tea), 80°C (green tea), 90°C (hot chocolate or coffee) or a familiar 100°C (boiling).” That’s right, there are four water temperature settings. How terribly, er, over-complicated. If you only ever want it boiling then – get this – you have to press ‘boil’ each and every time. Almost like, you know, having to press a single switch on a ‘traditional’ kettle.

Is it wrong for appliances to get more sophisticated, rather than less so? If you look at this kettle, it’s got a number of features many people might find useful. It has a large 1.5L capacity. The heating element is concealed, which reduces limescale build-up. It has a rapid-boil function for when you’re in a rush. A keep-warm function can keep the water at the desired temperature for up to 30 minutes. There is a limescale filter so the spout pours cleanly. In fact, I quite want one of these kettles (Bosch, I hope you are reading this). At £40 it’s practically a steal.

Also accused of being over-complicated is the humble vacuum cleaner. Take the Vax Zoom Family and Pet Bagless Cylinder Vacuum Cleaner, about which the article decries: “The ridiculous name aside, this £150 monument to excessive disposable income includes a "crevice tool", "dusting brush", "turbo tool", "stretch hose" and "flexi crevice tool". You know, for cleaning your flexi-crevices. Which, obviously, aren't a thing [sic].” I personally wouldn’t spend £150 on a vacuum cleaner either. But to say that the various flexible hoses and attachments are terribly complicated seems a bit of a stretch. It doesn’t require someone with a massive brain to put a small brush on the end of a plastic hose when they want to vacuum a narrow gap, whether Vax chooses to call it a crevice tool or not.

Various experts are drawn on to talk about ‘function inflation’ and ‘setting creep’. The iPod is held up as a shining example of making complicated things simple, and yet early iPod menu systems, as well as early versions of iTunes, were actually rather complicated. According to Amplicate, 60 per cent of a sample of over 75,000 consumers hate iTunes to this day. Even now, negotiating iTunes and its integration with the cloud and your various devices is not always a simple task – certainly not as simple as turning a dial to "duvet" when you load a sodding duvet into a washing machine.

The thing is, some appliances, gadgets and electronics are really badly designed. The issue isn’t the number of functions, it’s how well complexity is hidden from the user. Most people only use a fraction of the features and functions of Microsoft Word, but my five year-old can still create and save a basic document. You can bemoan the fact that you can no longer repair your "overly-complex" car all you like, but do you really want to go back to the reliability of a Hillman Imp, and hand back your air conditioning, ABS, traction control, engine management systems and a whole range of safety features? I wouldn’t. Want a toaster with only one button? Fine, you can still buy one. But don’t presume that the rest of us are too stupid to know the difference between frozen bread and toast.

Are we really baffled, bamboozled and befuddled? Photograph: Getty Images

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution