When Starbucks announced last week that it was launching a free "Card Mobile" iPhone app that would allow users to ditch their plastic Starbucks cards and use their phones (or iTouches) to pay, the question immediately arose: Was the app worth more than early-adopter bragging rights? (Cough, leveler, cough.) Upping the ante was that eight whole stores in Seattle and eight in Silicon Valley would be testing the new payment system.
So I downloaded the app last week, realized that I had to buy an actual Starbucks card in order to use it, and finally tried it out this morning at the Columbia Tower's 40th-floor Starbucks. (You knew about that store, right, with its 180-degree views of the city?)
If you're one of America's 6 million iPhone users -- once again, Blackberry/G1/Palm Pre/Zune owners, suck it -- here are five things that might make the app worth having:
1. The app is simple to use. After loading $5 on the physical card I bought to get started, I input two series of numbers from the back into the app. Immediately, the screen displayed that I had $5 to spend. Recharging the card with any amount from $10 to $100 is just as easy.
2. Knowing your balance is helpful. I've had similar cards that sat in my wallet for months because I couldn't remember how much money they had on them; seeing the balance makes me more likely to drain it down. In fact, retailers make millions of dollars each year on all the money we forget to spend. Is Starbucks shooting itself in the foot by telling us how much we've already given it? Also, it still sucks that you can't add a tip for the barista to the order, so you've got to carry cash for him or her. (Rule #6a in the Seattle Etiquette Rulebook: never, ever piss off your barista.)
3. The electronic payment actually works. And that's already an improvement on its predecessors. Last month, I downloaded CardStar, an iPhone app that stores barcodes on it, and entered in my QFC frequent shopper card number, my library card number, and a few others. Not only did it take just as long to flick through the app to find the appropriate barcode as it would have to pull out the right piece of plastic, none of the barcode readers I tried CardStar on worked. I didn't have any such problem with the Starbucks app. At the Sky Lobby store I placed my order and hit the "Touch to Pay" circle on the screen. The app generated a digitized block on my screen that I held up to a card-sized scanner next to the cash register. A light on the scanner flickered, and that was it. Others have complained that the e-payment system didn't work that well, but some of us clean our screens occasionally.
4. The app supposedly gets you two hours of free wi-fi in the cafe. Starbucks now says that having the app entitles the user to access its AT&T wi-fi hotspot. However, AT&T worked out that little deal more than a year ago, partly to reduce the strain on its 3G network. It sounds like this new "benefit" imposes more restrictions on iPhone users, not fewer.
5. The app lets you manage several cards at one time. Fewer cards = smaller wallet butt. You can delete an expired card if you don't want to recharge it, or if you are given several different cards as holiday presents, you can use all of them (at once) on your iPhone app. Once you've entered the card number into your app, no one else can use it -- a coworker and I checked.
And three reasons it's not:
1. It's nice that you don't have to input your personal information to use a mobile card, but if you want to recharge it via your iPhone or iTouch, by the terms of service you're agreeing to give Starbucks an awful lot of your personal information. The raised-by-lefties side of me (well, the side that freelanced for an Internet privacy organization for years) doesn't like giving my contact information to corporations, or saving my credit card numbers on their websites; somehow all the personal info on my other "frequent shopper" cards is incorrect. Call me paranoid, and I'll agree with you, but I'd probably charge my card up at the store.
2. The whole thing works, of course, if the reader in the store does. It's not like Sound Transit's always-failing ORCA card readers -- your barista probably isn't going to roll his eyes and wave you through like the bus drivers do. Better keep a cash backup during the beta period, just in case.
3. You have to drink Starbucks coffee.