To the ranks of Netflix (NFLX -9.09%), Walt Disney (DIS 0.16%), Amazon (AMZN -2.56%), and the rest of the streaming service gang, you can now add a new name: Quibi. Newer and lesser-known than its peers, Quibi launched on April 6 of this year -- on time, despite the COVID-19 crisis.

Quibi is an ambitious service that in some ways looks very different from its more established competition. Quibi's short-form videos and mobile focus appear to bet on a fast-moving future in which streamers would be as eager to grab a few minutes of entertainment on the go as they would be to settle down in front of the TV. But are we living in that future yet? And if not, will we ever get there?

A woman watches something on her smartphone

Image source: Getty Images.

The concept

Quibi's core offerings -- its eponymous "Quibis" -- are short-form videos. A portmanteau of "quick bites," Quibis aren't generally just clips or highlights. They still serve as full episodes or programs, albeit in a smaller serving size than what viewers have grown used to from Netflix or Hulu. For instance, Quibi's website currently features a screenshot of Survive, an original series starring Sophie Turner. The first episode is just eight minutes long.

The length of the videos isn't the only thing that's unique about Quibi. The service is also extremely focused on mobile entertainment. As of this writing, Quibi has launched on mobile devices only -- users won't find Quibi support from established home entertainment and streaming platforms like Roku (ROKU -3.05%) or the Amazon Fire TV.

Quibi was founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Walt Disney Studios chairman who produced hits like The Little Mermaid (1989) and The Lion King (1994) before co-founding DreamWorks Animation, where he served as CEO until the company's acquisition by Comcast. Quibi is privately owned, but it has some big-time backing from publicly-traded companies and their subsidiaries. The service has drummed up billions of dollars in funding from investors like Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony (SONY -0.71%) Pictures, AT&T (T 1.10%), and ViacomCBS (NASDAQ: VIAC). And Quibi's content has been produced through partnerships with many of those same media giants.

A mixed debut

How is all of this going over with the public? So far, Quibi's reviews have been a mixed bag.

Quibi was roundly panned by The Guardian and USA Today, among other outlets. It got middling reviews from The Verge and Vanity Fair, to name just two. As for outright positive reviews, those are much harder to find in the mainstream press.

Quibi's target audience seems similarly unimpressed. Users have been quick to complain about one aspect of the company's vision: Its mobile-only approach is frustrating. Critics of this approach have taken to social media and app stores to voice their frustration. 

A more objective measure of the launch's success would be app downloads, but it's not yet clear how many of those there were. Two analytics firms, Sensor Tower and App Annie, have released two very different launch-day Quibi download figures (300,000 and 700,000, respectively). The lower of those two would be a pretty rough start for Quibi, and either figure would place it well outside of the big leagues (for reference, Disney+ had more than four million installs on its launch day).

More heartening for Quibi is the reception that its short-form concept has received. While critics are unimpressed with the shows themselves and users appear to be frustrated by their inability to watch the content on a real TV, the concept at the heart of Quibi's approach -- the idea that there's no reason shows can't be eight or 10 minutes long instead of 30 or 50 -- seems to be going over reasonably well, at least by the subjective measures of critical and user reviews.

And why shouldn't it? The half-hour and hour slots (minus 10 minutes or so for commercial breaks) were an outgrowth of legacy pay-TV formats and scheduled viewing. In an on-demand world, only tradition keeps viewers expecting shows to be around 25 to 30 or 50 to 60 minutes long. To be fair, tradition can be powerful -- readers have been consuming more novels than novellas and short stories for generations, and a century or so of filmmaking has produced relatively few films shorter than one hour or longer than three, but there's plenty of reason to believe that short-form videos have a bright future.

For one thing, at least one streaming video platform already has a lot of short-form videos: Alphabet's YouTube, which is both Quibi's most obvious competition and one of the most successful streaming services on the planet. And short-form videos aren't just for busy individuals -- they also let binge-watchers fine-tune their streaming sessions in increments of just a few minutes. With short episodes, you can watch for a few more minutes without having to quit in the middle of an episode. And of course, short-form videos are perfect for busy people on the move.

Of course, relatively few people are busy these days, which brings us to the curious problem of Quibi's timing.

Timing is everything

By some measures, this is a great time for a streaming service to launch. We are, after all, in the middle of a stay-at-home streaming boom fueled by bored kids, adults who are working (or pretending to work) at home, unemployed workers, and other individuals and families suddenly finding themselves with lots of time on their hands. Netflix, Amazon's Twitch, and YouTube are among the streaming services enjoying more traffic than ever. And while that has been a problem for broadband infrastructure in Europe, stateside communications networks have been holding up pretty well. All in all, it ought to be a good time to launch a new streaming service in the domestic U.S. market.

Yet Quibi seems uniquely unsuited to the moment. Quibi's short-form videos are designed for busy people, and those lucky enough to avoid the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis may be less busy. Binge-watching would still be an option, but Quibi's mobile-only launch suggests a focus on the "quick bites" aspects of the app. The mobile-only approach also makes it tough to share the viewing experience with others -- families probably aren't gathering around an iPhone for family movie night, which is a tough fit at a time when many are sheltered at home with spouses, kids, or roommates.

Quibi's biggest problem, then, seems to be its mobile focus. A mobile-only app makes very little sense in a world where so many people are locked in their homes with their televisions, their families, and little to do. Adding insult to injury is the fact that some content partners, like Disney's ESPN, are themselves limited by the COVID-19 crisis; it's got to be hard for ESPN to produce compelling short-form sports content when sports leagues around the world have closed up shop. On the flip side, Quibi's partnership with NBC News should be a plus in this environment, as Nielsen has predicted that a surge in TV viewing by quarantined viewers should help elevate news content in particular.

Back to the future

Evaluating Quibi's founding theories is impossible to do in any particularly precise way, because there are far too many variables at play -- including, perhaps most importantly, the apparent opinion of critics and users that Quibi's shows are pretty lousy. But the early response suggests an intriguing future for Quibi's short-form video concept while casting serious doubt on Quibi's unnecessarily limiting mobile-only approach. The good news for Quibi and its content partners is that the idea of bite-sized entertainment may have staying power. Assuming that Quibi hasn't signed any agreements with its content partners that would keep it off platforms like Roku, an investment in non-mobile apps should patch up the service's biggest weakness.

On the other hand, Quibi's competition is not obligated to stand pat while Quibi rights the ship. If short-form content catches on with audiences, then other streaming services may rush in to service that demand. That wouldn't be good for Quibi, but it could offer benefits to content partners that have or will soon have streaming services of their own like Disney and NBCUniversal, as well as to competitors like Netflix. Quibi seems unlikely to change the streaming market overnight, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. But don't be surprised if the short-form concept has a gradual and lasting effect on the ways in which on-demand services organize and offer their original programming.