Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

How AT&T spilled the Starbucks beans

May 10, 2008: 9:07 AM ET

Here's one thing the folks at Apple could teach their friends at AT&T: how to parcel out the good news.

Case in point: the Starbucks-iPhone-Wi-Fi deal that's been on and off all week and generating all the wrong kind of headlines (see for example, here).

If Steve Jobs were running AT&T, he would have kept it simple. And a surprise. The first we would have heard about it would be when he announced it, with a flourish, as a fait accompli. Starting today, free unlimited Wi-Fi for every iPhone owner at all 7,000 Starbucks coffee shops and every other AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot -- 17,000 in the U.S., 70,000 around the world.

Boom.

What we got instead was the public relations equivalent of second-day coffee, starting with the press release AT&T (T) issued back in February. The 13-paragraph document talks about free Wi-Fi for "AT&T broadband, AT&T U-verseSM Internet [and] AT&T's remote access services business customers" but never mentions Apple (AAPL) or the iPhone -- two hot-button words that would have given the news some real buzz.

Instead reporters focused on the fact that Starbucks (SBUX) was pulling the plug on T-Mobile, which had been providing it with wireless service since 2001.

Then, last week, without warning, AT&T turned the service on. I spotted it on April 30 when I tried to log on to my T-Mobile account and discovered an AT&T link that wasn't there the day before. I was already thinking about how many extra shots of espresso I could buy with the $39 a month I would save.

And I was not alone. Apple rumor sites that day were flooded with tips from both coasts alerting them that iPhone owners were getting free Wi-Fi at Starbucks by just by typing in their 10-digit AT&T phone number. AT&T had apparently launched a nationwide test without telling anyone.

Then, four days later, the service stopped, as abruptly and mysteriously as it started, setting off waves of confusion and speculation about what the company's on-again, off-again behavior might mean. (see here)

You might think that AT&T would have learned their lesson. But no. On Thursday, the text on its website was changed to add language about the new service -- "access to AT&T's more than 17,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, including Starbucks* all for use (sic) in the U.S." -- that iPhone owners took as a signal that the game was on for good.

Then the language disappeared, along with the Wi-Fi service, triggering another round of second-guessing. (see here)

Apparently the habit of firing before aiming -- not to mention clearing it with publicity -- had spread from AT&T's networking guys to its marketing staff.

Officially, both AT&T and Apple have no comment, but the folks in Cupertino are clearly miffed. They saw the Starbucks deal as big news for iPhone owners, and they had hoped to work with AT&T to package it for high-profile release, probably in a matter of weeks.

They would have done it right.

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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