While I don’t buy the idea that there’s a movement afoot to oust free Wi-Fi from coffee shops, there is certainly a niche of businesses who don’t want their customers staring at screens all day.
Not Starbucks. The coffee chain, which began giving away unlimited, free Wi-Fi last June, is taking the offer a step further with the Starbucks Digital Network, a content portal that’s only available through the in-shop Wi-Fi.
Folks who log on to the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi network after October 20 will get free access to the New York Times (don’t forget, the paywall is coming), the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. The portal also has free e-book selections through the Bookish Reading Club, featured music and videos from iTunes, kids’ content from Nick Jr. Boost and tie-ins to Yahoo, which built the website. (Here’s the full list of content.)
Starbucks always aspired to be a content curator, but there’s a limit to how many physical books and CDs the store can sell before it stops resembling a coffee shop. The digital storefront lets Starbucks sell more stuff without giving up table space. If Starbucks eventually ditched physical media for the Digital Network, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Smaller coffeehouses obviously lack the resources to do anything similar, but that’s not the point. When I look around my local coffee joint, most people on computers are working or studying, not entertaining themselves with music and e-books. More importantly than the content itself, Starbucks’ computer portal encourages customers to bring in their laptops and stay a while. The challenge for smaller coffee shops is to compete with that message.