As a wise man once said, "Starbucks giveth and Starbucks taketh away." Scant days after iPhone users reported finding free access at certain coffee chain locations that had switched to new Wi-Fi provider AT&T, that feature now seems to have vanished into the ether.
I revisited the Davis Square, Somerville, location at which I'd found free access last week. Instead of the login screen that readily accepted my iPhone number, I was greeted by a user login screen asking for a user ID and password. While there didn't appear to be an option to sign-up for Wi-Fi access on my iPhone, the login screen seems to accept a variety of user credentials, from AT&T Wi-Fi users to AT&T Remote Access users and customers of a variety of AT&T subsidiaries and services, such as Prodigy, SBC, and SNET.
The reasons behind the disappearance are no less vague as those behind the initial free access. An AT&T spokesperson I talked to declined to comment, and Starbucks did not reply to a request for comment. While it's possible that this may merely be a matter AT&T initially turning on this service earlier than intended, there also may be a more technical explanation to the service's disappearance.
The system AT&T was using to detect iPhones relied on reading the client's User Agent, a plaintext string that identifies the browsing software and platform of the device. That string, however, is extremely simple to alter--for legitimate reasons; it's often used by web developers for compatibility testing. Safari users, for example, can masquerade as an iPhone merely by checking a box in the preferences to enable the Develop menu and then selecting the appropriate option from the User Agent sub-menu.
Some have speculated that the ease with which users could obtain free access for their laptops and other devices may have led to AT&T shuttering the service, though whether that decision is temporary or permanent is unknown. We'll continue to follow the story, keeping you posted on any new developments.
This story, "Starbucks Free Wi-Fi Vanishes Into Thin Air" was originally published by Macworld.