Starbucks provided one more bit of clarification about free access related to its stored-value card: I understood last week that Starbucks required a single purchase on a Starbucks Card every 30 days to enable two hours of free service each day. This would cover any stored-value card, including gift cards, but unrelated to their Visa-branded Duetto card.
In fact, as a Starbucks spokesperson confirmed to me and my colleague Eric Lai at Computerworld that you either need to make a purchase or put more value on the card. As Lai points out, if you're extremely pecuniary, you could make a purchase every 60 days and put value on the card (a minimum of $5 each time) on alternating 60-day periods. I actually quite like the cold sandwiches and salads at Starbucks if I'm not a fan of their roasting style, so I'll have no trouble with this requirement.
Lai also teased out one more detail: the free access is for two consecutive hours of service each day, not for two hours in sum. Which means that if you need to use the service more than two hours apart in two locations, you need to either set up multiple accounts and have multiple Starbucks Cards; pay the $4 for two consecutive hour as-you-need-it price; or be a subscriber to a network like Boingo or AT&T.
My dirty little secret as a Wi-Fi-focused reporter is that I have never had a subscription to any hotspot service for more than a month or two at a time, as I travel rarely these days and have found that paying nothing or $5 to $10 for a handful of sessions has outweighed the monthly fees. Now, however, I'm a Boingo subscriber, and will remain one--not to play favorites, but they have the best deal for my purposes in wandering around Seattle, and occasionally winding up in airports and downtowns of various cities.
On my prediction that Starbucks would never be free: I was off base in this prediction, but I predicated my prognostication on the notion that T-Mobile would never give service away for free. It had never entered my head that Starbucks would suddenly open negotiations to replace T-Mobile. My various sources indicate that the plan came about pretty quickly, and that T-Mobile was surprised to find itself not the winner. This is clearly part of the new direction that Howard Schultz is taking the company, but CTO Chris Bruzzo told me a week that when he arrived about a year ago at Starbucks, he was revved up on making sure that Wi-Fi was a more integral part of the store experience; now it will be.
T-Mobile apparently had no interest in being involved in providing more free service, and isn't in a position to use Wi-Fi as a tool for loyalty as AT&T can. AT&T is selling cell and landline and wired broadband; this extension of Wi-Fi to Starbucks costs them a rounding error, and reduces their churn by some unknown factor. If 100,000 people a year choose to stick to AT&T, and perhaps even expand their services, that's potentially $200m in revenue (100,000 people times $2,000 a year between cell contracts, phone, and broadband) that they would otherwise have had to spend tens of millions of marketing dollars to keep or would have lost entirely.
Will McDonald's go free? That's the next question. Starbucks was set up on a collision course with McDonald's as Starbucks introduced hot food and other services; but the ovens are being pulled out of the coffee giant, even as Mickey D puts espresso bars into most of its stores. McDonald's move seems a bad idea. However, the spirit of competition might drive the fast-food purveyor to offer a similar customer loyalty program for free access. At one point, you got two hours of free service in McDonald's for a purchase, but it's unclear to me from all McDonald's branding whether that's still the case.
(Photo by Rudolf Schuba. Used under Creative Commons license.)