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Quibi placed a Hollywood-style bet but is now 'iterating' like Silicon Valley

The service designed for mobile viewing added AirPlay to its app this week, with Chromecast support coming next.

Tom Conrad

Tom Conrad, chief product officer for Quibi, says of the service's launch and subsequent changes, "This is the life we've chosen. It's a game of risk-taking and iteration, and following the data. We'll put new versions of Quibi out into the world every couple of weeks and iterate our way through this opening chapter."

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After launching with a singular focus on mobile short-form video, Quibi is starting to change its tune: The service added AirPlay support to its iOS app this week to let subscribers watch its shows on their TVs. Chromecast support is slated to go live next month, Quibi's Chief Product Officer Tom Conrad told Protocol this week.

"We've heard loud and clear from our users that they're, particularly in this environment, interested in being able to cast our shows to their television," Conrad said.

Some of Quibi's novel features don't easily translate to TV screens, but for the company, the addition of living room viewing is not just a technical challenge. It also marks a transition from placing Hollywood-sized bets based largely on gut feelings to a more Silicon Valley-like approach of product iteration, which may be key to the flailing service turning things around.

To say things didn't exactly go as planned for Quibi is an understatement. Helmed by Hollywood veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP CEO Meg Whitman, Quibi set out to reinvent mobile video with a subscription service focused on bite-sized entertainment. Quibi raised a whopping $1.75 billion, struck deals with major Hollywood stars and produced dozens of shows with episodes of 10 minutes or less that were meant to be viewed in line at Starbucks or during your morning train ride.

But when Quibi launched April 6, all of those scenarios had disappeared from people's lives. "We have spent the last couple of years building a bespoke mobile-video service designed for these in-between and on-the-go moments," Conrad said. "And we launched in this new world where we find ourselves at home."

Quibi's app was installed around 1.5 million times during its launch week, according to estimates from app intelligence specialist Sensor Tower. By last week, the number of new installs had declined to approximately 224,000. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that 1.5 million people had signed up for its 90-day free trial — far shy of the 7 million paying users the company was aiming to reach this year. As a result, some advertisers are looking to renegotiate their deals, according to the Journal.

Katzenberg made headlines this month when he blamed all of Quibi's struggles on COVID-19. Reflecting on the launch from a product perspective, Conrad struck a more upbeat note, saying, "Really, truly, we're exactly where I imagined we might be, six or eight weeks after our launch." He noted that many viewers are using Turnstyle, a Quibi-exclusive feature that allows people to switch between landscape and portrait viewing. "Turnstyle turns out to be like a really shining success point in what we've delivered so far," Conrad said.

Eventually adding ways to watch Quibi content on TVs had always been on the company's roadmap, according to Conrad, but it wasn't exactly top of mind. "We were really focused on getting the mobile use cases right," he said. "The COVID situation has changed the world enough that it's made us revisit some of those decisions."

To quickly add TV support, Quibi had to make some compromises. Turnstyle, for instance, won't be working with AirPlay or Chromecast for the time being. Instead, TV viewers will get to see the landscape cut of a show by default.

That's notable because Quibi didn't just pitch Turnstyle as a screen orientation feature. The company has been encouraging creatives to take advantage of Turnstyle, and other mobile phone features, to enhance storytelling. A reboot of "Reno 911" features a few scenes that use Turnstyle to let viewers switch between different camera angles. A thriller that's scheduled to launch later this year makes extensive use of the feature to augment its plot.

The company was still trying to figure out how to bring those features to the TV screen, Conrad explained. "This is all a learning process for us," he said. "We wanted to get something out there quickly, start to learn, and iterate as feedback comes back." The company was more "philosophy-driven" ahead of its launch, he said. "Post-launch, you have to be customer-driven."

It's no surprise that Quibi took gutsy bets on the future of video. The company is headquartered in Los Angeles, where studios frequently spend hundreds of millions of dollars on movies with hopes that some of them become blockbusters. Quibi is also, by all accounts, very much Katzenberg's idea. In other words: It's a child of Hollywood, not Silicon Valley.

Conrad argued that Quibi had to approach its launch differently than, say, a note-taking app that could have started more modestly, with a minimum viable product. "We launched with 50 shows, which meant that we had to make all of that initial content investment up front," he said.

With its focus on mobile viewing, Qubi didn't want to license cheaper catalog content, and with a huge content budget, it only seemed appropriate to also spend big on marketing — at least until the pandemic. Katzenberg recently told The New York Times that Quibi was dialing back its marketing expenses to weather the downturn.

Now that Quibi is live, it's all about refining that initial bet, Conrad said. "This is the life we've chosen. It's a game of risk-taking and iteration, and following the data. We'll put new versions of Quibi out into the world every couple of weeks, and iterate our way through this opening chapter."

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
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The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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