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Forget coffee, Starbucks is a tech company

People think Starbucks is a coffee company. But every restaurant sells coffee. What makes Starbucks unique is technology.

June 14, 2014 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Apple. Google. Amazon. Starbucks?

We taxonomize businesses. Ford is a car company. Exxon Mobil is an oil and gas company. And Microsoft is a technology company.

Starbucks is normally slotted into the food-and-beverage category, but I think it's more of a tech company -- if not like Google, then at least like Amazon.

Amazon started out as an online bookstore then branched into selling everything. Today, Amazon differentiates itself against other retailers with algorithms, cloud services, robots and drones -- not to mention tablets, TV boxes and, soon, a 3D smartphone. Amazon doesn't belong in the "retail store" category. It's a technology company.

Likewise, Starbucks started out selling coffee (it initially sold Peet's coffee, actually). But now Starbucks is essentially a technology company. Here's why:

Wireless charging

Wireless charging has been stuck in the mud for years. Mainstream acceptance is always coming next year. But somehow, next year never arrives. A few high-end phones support wireless charging, but for the most part, it's still a nonstarter.

Starbucks is going big and being very visible about wireless charging. It will stimulate demand and drive conversations about the support of standards.

That's why it's significant that Starbucks this week announced a plan to install 100,000 wireless chargers in more than 7,500 of its stores over the next three years. That's more than 10 charging stations per store.

Never mind that the company is supporting only one of the competing standards and therefore most smartphones won't be able to take advantage of its wireless charging service. In fact, Starbucks is supporting a standard that isn't very popular among smartphone makers: the Power Matters Alliance standard. Smartphone makers tend to support the Wireless Power Consortium standard (better known as the Qi standard).

The important thing is that Starbucks is going big and being very visible about wireless charging. It will stimulate demand and drive conversations about the support of standards.

Indoor location beacons

At its recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple demonstrated a feature that displays the icons associated with stores or locations on the lock screen when you arrive at those locations -- even if you've never downloaded the store's app! Tapping on the icon takes you to the Apple App Store to download the app if you don't have it, and launches it if you do.

Apple's poster child for this feature was Starbucks. The feature uses Apple's iBeacon system, the micro-location technology I've written about in this space in the past (see "Why Apple's 'Indoor GPS' Plan Is Brilliant" and "Apple's iBeacon Gets Fun").

It seems obvious to me that Starbucks is likely to add iBeacons to all of its stores, making it possible for you to order a drink in advance and then auto-notify the barista when you walk in the door. Your drink will be ready by the time you make it to the register.

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