How is Starbuck’s Exclusive Digital Network Like Decaf?*

*Answer: Why would you bother? It’s another “We Try it So You Don’t Have To.”

Here’s what’s easy to admire about Starbucks, in a business sense (aside from the Borg-like assimilation of the retail coffee scene nationwide and the huge piles of money that accompany it): the company sure isn’t afraid to try new things. Concept stores, instant coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and now there’s news of offering beer and wine.

One of Starbucks’ more recent new offerings is free Wi-Fi, thanks to a partnership with AT&T, which began last summer. Now the company has rolled out the second part of that in-store Wi-Fi strategy:  what the company calls the Starbucks Digital Network. It’s an official partnership with Yahoo!, and it includes free music downloads, access to content from a smattering of providers across the following channels: News, Entertainment, Wellness, Business & Careers, My Neighborhood, and Starbucks.

Now, it’s really hard to thumb your nose at free Wi-Fi, because it sure beats paying for Internet access. But is the”Digital Network,” to which people using the Wi-Fi are automatically directed as a start page, worth a damn? It promises content for any size screen, meaning mobile works, which is neat (see pics below). And conceptually getting free music is cool . . . but it’s  iTunes only. Sorry Android users (or maybe you’re the lucky ones). There’s free WSJ (which usually has a paywall) and NY Times (which is throwing up a paywall in January), which is nifty. Overall, this new digital initiative is  not such a bad perk if Starbucks is a place you are inclined to stay anyway (plus  it’s fun  that the WSJ promo graphic features  so many of its famous headcuts . . . truly the best thing about the Journal).

Buuuttttt . . . there are a couple weird little wrinkles about the portal. Like the apparent lack of a neighborhood if you live in a city that’s of middlin’ size. But the most flabbergasting thing is the Starbucks Digital network’s  kid-focused content

C’mon, is Starbucks really for kids? A Nick Jr.-provided educational program seems to indicate that you should hang there with your kid; you sipping coffee and maybe getting work done, and junior hanging out with Moose A. Moose, Dora, and company.

As a parent of two, one of whom is the perfect age for this content, I would feel rather irresponsible bringing my child to Starbucks . . . or any coffee shop for any extended length of time. For one thing, super-hot beverages and kids don’t mix. For another, a child using the computer for education doesn’t mean you plop him down and ignore him for a half hour. Kids are sure to have questions, and the activity should engender discussion . . . and kids plus  conversation generally equals loud. Which is cool at home or the kids’ section of a public library. But I’m of the opinion that coffeeshops are generally places where adults should feel safe to engage in the adult activities of (1) mature conversation and (2) getting shit done, which is the main appeal of the free Wi-Fi anyway (getting shit done somewhere that’s not your home).

This kid-oriented content seems to be inviting your computer to function as a babysitter, which is lame, or at the very least disrupting the very atmosphere that’s enjoyable about a cafe. If you need to stick your kid on the computer somewhere away from home, take him or her to the public library or even McDonald’s (which also carries AT&T Wi-Fi for free). Or forget the computer and go to the park. You can bring your coffee in a to-go cup.

In any case: the mobile screens are indeed pretty usable, although, again, optimized for iPhone users, at least so far as the free music is concerned. Probably not a big loss.

free music, free internet, wi-fi, starbucks

news, free music, free internet, wi-fi, starbucks

In sum, aside from the kiddie content striking a rather inappropriate chord, this seems to be a non-event. Free Wi-Fi is swell  any way you slice it, if you’re inclined to visit a Starbucks versus a local small business. The Starbucks Digital Network = an interesting diversion, but in no way, shape, or form a selling point.

GRADE: YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

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