In big coffee’s latest attempt to commoditize the former specialty coffeehouse experience, Starbucks and Caribou Coffee this week announced free or practically free WiFi promotions in the desperate hope that someone – anyone – will visit their stores. In the case of Caribou, no purchase required.

Caribou Coffee, Starbucks roll out free WiFi

Hoping to perk up business, rival coffee chains Caribou and Starbucks are rolling out plans to provide patrons with free — or mostly free — wireless service.

Caribou Coffee Company Inc. will offer free wireless service, the company said Tuesday.

Caribou (Nasdaq: CBOU) said the service will be available to customers in over 80 percent of its stores through a partnership with Atlanta-based Wandering WiFi, a wireless service provider.

Previously, Caribou Coffee had offered customers wireless Internet access under a “free-with-a-minimum-purchase” deal it began in 2006, but the company said it decided to offer the service completely free without any purchase.

The deal comes as rival coffee chain Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. (Nasdaq: SBUX) announced that it has rolled out a mostly free WiFi service plan of its own, through a deal with AT&T.

Previously, Starbucks had partnership with T-Mobile, under which patrons would pay up to $10 for a day for use of Internet service at the company’s stores.

Now, Starbucks customers purchase a Starbucks gift card and register it online, after which they can get up to two hours of consecutive Internet access per day.

The card must be used at least once per month with a Starbucks purchase in order to keep it active.

Starbucks chief technology officer Chris Bruzzo said in a press statement earlier this year that the offering is intended to “enhance and expand the Starbucks Experience.”

What happened to Ray Oldenburg’s “3rd Place” concept that originally inspired the company?

In his book, The Great Good Place, Oldenburg argues that “third places” – where people can gather, put aside the concerns of work and home, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation – are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the grassroots of democracy.

Perhaps MySpace Friends have replaced our real friends in the new Starbucks Experience, but I still don’t see how this move to offer free Internet access will directly translate to sales of coffee or enhanced consumer brand loyalty. Sure, I agree one who sits in a coffee shop for 2 hours is more likely to purchase coffee than if never entering the establishment, but do these chains truly want to be known as a pseudo-work environment first and place of coffee expertise second?

The strategy of converting a specialty food business into a makeshift office commissary hardly seems to benefit the brand in the long term and I strongly doubt will translate to increase profitability in the short term.

I suggest that these companies should instead consider looking in the place that seems far more likely to bring them new business: the cup.