In reading the Mashable story about how Starbucks is going to create their own digital network of content as their way of justifying "free Wi-Fi" I had to admit I was intrigued. Over the past few years Starbucks has done pretty much all they could do to alienate the long stayer. They have cranked up the volume, turned up the Air Conditioning, reduced the number of "comfortable" chairs in many locations and worst of all, brought in AT&T to replace T-Mobile, and with that, dropped the capacity and speeds of connectivity from business grade service to some kind of DSL in many locations.
First, I was intrigued by the concept of content curation, and I applaud the effort. But like their burnt coffee bean flavor, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth of questions unanswered. For example, are they storing the content locally by caching the data on a server, or will each new patron "pull" the content? I think it should be the former as it will reduce network overload, and also reduce the load on AT&T's network for upstream backhaul. Second, how does this multimedia rich experience impact those of us who go to Starbucks or any hotspot for essential access to email, web browsing, file downloading and IM? Translation, will the pipe be clogged with "fat" content, vs. essential transport?
I for one want an open broadband connection to the Internet, not a walled garden of someone else's idea of content, when I'm in a public hotspot. And, I'm willing to pay for it. I paid, and continue to pay T-Mobile $19.95 a month for my access where they are, and I pay client Boingo $59.99 for Global Roaming access. With both, I get an open pipe, that's free of clutter. It's the same with BT OpenZone in the UK, Orange or SFR in France or SwissCom in Switzerland. The pipe is there for me to do what I want, how I want (within reason of course).
So, while Starbucks is right in creating a curated content network that is really all about lifestyle, largely as an instore entertainment effort, there are still those of us who simply want to connect to the open Internet, and are willing to pay for that option, and receive the kind of connectivity that allows us to make VoIP calls, have a video conversation with someone, upload and download files (work, not hijacked P2P content), send emails with rapid upload and have web pages load in the blink of an eye.
To put it in terms they'll understand. Some of us just want a good cup of coffee, without foam, sugar, flavoring, or any other special additives. We want the same in the way of 'net access. Deliver both and you'll have a customer for life.
Now, back to the Mashable post:
"In fact, when it comes to SDN, there’s no money changing hands between Starbucks and the content providers. Content providers are giving away restricted access in the hopes of attracting new business, and Starbucks wins by having something completely unique and customers benefit from by getting something of value at no cost. Brotman says, “It’s a win-win for everyone.” "
Plain and simple, this is called Sampling. It's not new and it's been consistently one of the most most successful forms of marketing in a retail environment for many, many years. Sampling is what you see at Costco, where the nice man or lady offers you a taste of new food products, lets you try a new health and beauty care product, or offers you a trial of a new electronics item. It's not breakthrough, it is all just packaging. And, what Starbucks is doing is simply providing a new sampling venue for content and downloadable media. Now how can it be made better? Quite simply. More power outlets, more comfortable chairs, couches that don't look like they've been slept in for years and a more sun blocking/tinted windows. Also, less "canned" audio that is so loud you can't talk to your spouse, colleague or new found friend without leaning over like you're going to make out with them.
I'm thrilled that Starbucks has recognized that Sampling is a wonderful entertainment opportunity, and applaud them for their efforts. But to make this work means more than what's on the laptop, it's the whole experience that matters.
P.S. I'm a Starbucks Gold card member, and never once was I, as an early adopter, and frequent user of Starbucks and heavy consumer of coffee and Internet access in many locations, ever surveyed about what I would like my in-store experience to be and have been in their stores chasing Internet access since the day they started offering it.
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