Starbucks' new app will be popular, but it shouldn't be.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

December 5, 2014

5 Min Read

In the time it takes you to read this opening paragraph, you can now order a coffee from Starbucks on your phone, pay for it, and have it waiting for you when you arrive -- complete with your name misspelled on the cup.

Yes, Starbucks has a new order-ahead app for folks who just can't wait for their morning caffeine fix. Everyone is all abuzz: "Why didn't we think of that?" The answer: It's an awful idea. This app is like ordering a venti whole-milk egg nog latte -- it sounds delicious, until you realize it has 620 calories.

I hate this app as much as I hate when I tell the barista to leave room for milk, and she fills my cup to the top. I hate this app more than the time they wrote Knave instead of Dave on my cup. I mean, come on, that guy had to be messing with me. I hate this app more than people who say McDonald's makes better coffee than Starbucks.

OK, full disclosure: I don't drink coffee. The only time I go to Starbucks is when I'm with caffeine-addicted friends. That Knave thing happened to someone else. But I still hate this app.

[Lighten up on Black Friday, folks -- we all love a tech deal. Read Stop The Black Friday & Cyber Week Hating.]

Why do I hate this app? You might not remember it, but there was a time when Starbucks stood for slowing down. The idea of Starbucks was to sit down with your coffee in a pleasant environment, enjoy the flavors, and talk to friends or read a good book. It had comfy chairs and WiFi when the rest of the restaurant world had plastic booths and bad Muzak. Starbucks was supposed to be the little trendy coffee shop every town had (except every town didn't have it). It was Central Perk for Middle America.

Then Starbucks added drive-through windows and pay-by-phone apps, so you could get out quicker. Now this is the last straw. The company that asked you to take it slow is now trying to get you out the door faster than McDonald's. I know people need their caffeine, but the only thing left is an IV to skip that troublesome digestion process.

This is what Starbucks says it stands for:

This is what this app shows it stands for:

Why does all this matter? Well, it doesn't really. People are going to love it. People are going to drink coffee the way they want to, and that's fine.

On the other hand, it does matter. It matters because the No. 1 rule of technology is don't talk about technology. Oh, wait, wrong rules. The first rule of technology is that, if doesn't make life better, we don't need it.

Most people, especially engineers, forget that rule. They don't even think it is a rule. That's why Silicon Valley is full of apps trying to deliver pizza 10 seconds faster. That's OK, it is Silicon Valley.

But Starbucks ought to know better. Not because it is more ethical or special -- because until recently it was the king of knowing who it was and what it did. Everything from the food to the décor right down to the CDs for sale in the basket by the register -- it was all definitively Starbucks. This app is not organic to the values of Starbucks. It does not match the values of its core customers. It does not match the marketing of the company itself. It is fast food for a slow food company.

That matters to any IT professional. Because if your app isn't aligned to your company values, your marketing strategy, and your customer's needs, your app is pointless.

I'm not saying the app will fail. The app will be a wild success. But it is taking Starbucks down a road it shouldn't want to go down. Walk into McDonald's, and you'll see timers that show how long it takes from when you order to when you get your food. I've seen it as low as 17 seconds, which frightens me.

This app means Starbucks is going to start thinking about telling customers how long it takes their double mocha latte to go from being ordered to being served. It will find ways to cut the process and increase table turnover. In short, this app, and the thinking behind it -- as well as the thinking behind the drive-through -- will slowly change the company irrevocably from what it was.

If you're a Starbucks customer, you will love this app. If you're an IT pro, please hate it. Please recognize the value of aligning your technological services with the values of your company -- or at least knowing where you are headed.

OK, rant over. I wonder if there is a place I could go relax for a few minutes and have a nice beverage and a pastry. It would help me calm down. We used to have one down the street, but they replaced it with this fast food coffee place. You can't even get in the parking lot because of the drive-through.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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