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K.C. MacLaren

At some point in the future, you may be able to order that Mocha Coconut Frappucinno from your mobile phone. Mobile ordering is just one of the areas where Starbucks is spending some time experimenting, listening to customers and trying to deliver the right solutions.

K.C. MacLaren, director of mobile and emerging platforms at Starbucks, believes that mobile technologies are an extension of Starbucks famed “third place” concept, helping to connect the digital and real worlds. He delivered the morning keynote at the MobileNorthwest conference in Seattle talking about the possibilities of mobile ordering and adding his two cents on Android (A Starbucks Android app is in the works) and the iPad (MacLaren doesn’t view it as a mobile device).

We caught up with MacLaren after his chat to get some more insights on where Starbucks is headed with mobile.

How important is mobile to Starbucks? “We see it as a way to engage with people — around the ‘fourth place’ idea. We look at individual experiences as this fourth place, and the mobile one is pretty compelling because it is the one that actually works with our stores versus a Web site which typically doesn’t. With mobile, there’s something to do with consumers which uplevels the Starbucks experience when they are on their way to the store, at the store and maybe after they’ve gotten their food and beverage. It is that segment of the journey with people that we couldn’t reach before.”

Are people embracing the idea of mobile payments through your iPhone app? “We rolled out nationally in January based on some successful testing we had done in New York and Seattle. We think, for some customers, that it is definitely the way they’d like to pay. The way we have done it is through a 2-D bar code so it doesn’t actually have any billing implications in terms of ordering. It is another way to use your Starbucks card.”

What about the ability to order drinks via your mobile? How far off is that? “Technically, it is doable. It is not that we couldn’t process an order and deliver it. The issue is: Do we want to and what is the customer experience going to be like? This idea that you should just give people what you have to offer and hope it is going to be valuable is not really the model we have. What we want to do is figure out what people will want, how they will use it and will it be helpful and effective … and I don’t think we necessarily know with mobile ordering. We will probably do some testing on it. But we did a test with mobile ordering in 2002 in Denver — based on SMS. So, we had some learnings from that. It continues to evolve.”

You mentioned in your talk that Android is a ‘watered down’ experience. What did you mean by that? “In a broad sense, in terms of some of the fragmentation in Android, with multiple resolutions, multiple screen sizes, different capabilities of different platforms that run Android, some users may find that they have to produce a watered down experience. They can’t deliver a consistent one. If they are using a lot of native device elements — like the accelerometer and the camera and gyroscope and all of the different pieces of the hardware — those are handled very differently on different devices. So, if you needed that, you might not be able to deliver that in a great way. You might have to take that feature out, for example.”

So, it is hard to develop for? “It can make it harder to develop for, depending upon what you are trying to do. For us, our app is not subject to that because we don’t have integration with the camera…. Our client side work is reasonably standard. Android has been interesting to develop for. It has not been a huge barrier, but we do see some problems that some people are having.”

Do you have an Android app at Starbucks? “We don’t. Not yet. We are working on it.”

On the Android versus iOS: “When iPhone was launched in 2008, there wasn’t anything else like it. So, if you wanted to do mobile app development, iPhone was really all there was. So, we started with that and it had the market share. It still has heavy market share, but Android is catching up quickly. But their SDK — in terms of development environment — is really now maturing. They are about a year behind where Apple is, but they are catching up.”

On the iPad: “We have a lot of conversations (going on) and what that experience should be like for our customers. The idea of paying with your iPad doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. We don’t think people will do it. For us, iPads aren’t mobile because. For us, it is being able to pay. That’s how we look at it… It is form factor. No one is going take their iPad and pull up the app and get the bar code and hold the thing in their hand. It is just unlikely. And people don’t always have their iPads with them. They always have their phones with them.”

What’s next for Starbucks in mobile? “Android is one certainly. We want to do more in (international markets). We will look at things like trying to build user-generated content, perhaps, where people are able contribute versus just us giving to them, they might be able to give something back and that might be compelling to people…. The idea that we had originally when we launched these apps back in 2009 was really to learn, and we are still in that learning mode. But now that learning is more structured.”

Previously on GeekWire: “Are iPads mobile devices? Experts weigh in”

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