Starbucks mobile payment: neat, but not novel

The New York Times reported yesterday that Starbucks had released a mobile app which makes it possible for Starbucks customers to pay for their purchases using their mobile phone. Now, mobile payment usually means NFC, but market penetration of NFC-enabled devices is still rather poor. So Starbucks has done an end-run around the problem, instead displaying a 2D barcode on the device’s screen. This 2D barcode contains the user’s Starbucks Card number, and functions in the same way as swiping a Starbucks Card.

Unfortunately, that’s where it becomes time for a reality check. Displaying a 2D barcode on the screen of a mobile device isn’t exactly a new idea, and it doesn’t require a native app, either. In early 2008, I used Air Canada’s mobile check-in site while stuck at YYZ after my flight was cancelled. I had rebooked over the phone, but I still needed to get a new boarding pass. I will quote from my writeup at the time about the experience:

I walked off in search of more food, while mulling over my options. I knew that there did not appear to be any kiosks, CUSS or AC-proprietary, at T1 airside. So, over a hamburger and fries, I hatched another plan: I would try AC’s mobile check-in. I pulled out my PDA, and navigated to http://mobile.aircanada.com. I entered my name, originating airport, and booking reference. The site displayed my new itinerary on AC 416, and my new seat assignment: 26C. That was not good. I tapped the seat assignment, and got a new page with four options: leave the seat assignment unchanged, select any window seat, select any aisle seat, or display the seat map. I knew that without checking seatguru.com I would not be able to tell one window seat from another, so I selected the option to receive any window seat. The site came back with 17K. That would do. Next, the site informed me that I was eligible to receive a mobile boarding pass. I entered my mobile phone number, and received two text messages: the first contained a text description of my flight (to be used at security, in lieu of a paper boarding pass), and the second contained a link. When I clicked on the link, Internet Explorer loaded an image with 2D barcode and the text “AC0416 17K”, which itself constituted my boarding pass, and which could be scanned at the gate. I was excited. Now, I could finish lunch without having to worry about having to queue at the gate to get my seat changed and get a new boarding pass printed.

What I failed to mention in my writeup at the time, though, was what happened when I got to the gate: the 2D barcode wouldn’t scan. The gate agent said they hadn’t yet received an upgrade necessary for scanning mobile boarding passes, and that I seemed to be the first person to have tried mobile check-in. So, I was manually marked as having boarded. When I got to the end of the jetway, the flight attendants clustered there were equally astounded when, instead of presenting a paper boarding pass, I thrust my PDA’s screen forward. As I already knew where my seat was, they waved me on while looking bemused. I certainly hope Starbucks stores today are better prepared than Air Canada was for mobile check-in at the time.

None of this required that I load an app on my phone; none of it required any technology that didn’t exist in early 2008. I am again compelled to return to Tim Berners-Lee’s recent admonition against fragmenting the Web by building mobile apps rather than Web sites designed for mobile browsers. Starbucks has released apps for BlackBerry and iOS. But what about Android, Symbian, and even feature phones which happen to have a browser but don’t run native apps? Back in 2008 I was using an HP iPAQ hw6955, running Windows Mobile 5. There was no need for Air Canada to have built an app specifically for that device, because instead they built a mobile web site which was based on open standards and which took advantage of facilities (a Web browser and text messaging) which almost all mobile phones today have.

What Starbucks has done is neat, but not novel, and in the overall landscape of mobile technology, it’s a regression of sorts. It’s the very regression that Tim Berners-Lee fears, in which the open Web is replaced by a closed warren of proprietary platforms and app stores.