Quibi’s crash and burn makes the slow, steady approach of Apple TV+ look smart

By

Tortoise
Apple's not in a rush with Apple TV+.
Photo: Magdalena Kula Manchee/Unsplash CC

In the words of Ron Burgundy, “That escalated quickly.” A day after short-form video streamer Quibi pivoted from a mobile-only approach to launch an Apple TV app, the beleaguered service announced it will shut down for good.

What lesson can we learn from Quibi’s glitzy, high-profile launch, only to crash and burn six months later? That the slow-but-steady, tortoise-like Apple TV+ strategy looks smarter than ever.

Quibi: What not to do

Apple, according to an October report from The Information, turned down the opportunity to purchase Quibi. Despite the fact that Apple’s own production schedule has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it could easily make use of the extra programming, it seems that Cupertino’s decision-makers didn’t think Quibi was worth it. It’s just one more example of the smart decision-making behind Apple’s TV efforts.

I have to admit that I had early reservations about Apple TV+. Apple’s 2019 “Show Time” event, which focused on the then-yet-to-launch service, proved weirdly undynamic. Then there were the rumors about Apple CEO Tim Cook stepping in to kill shows deemed too gritty, and the lingering bad taste of Apple Music’s original TV series Planet of the Apps. And the early critical drubbing of Apple TV+’s first wave of shows.

Let’s face it: Apple TV+ could have bombed. But the riches-to-rags story of Quibi — which raised some $1.75 billion, only to shut down in a matter of months — underlines just how much Apple TV+ got right so far.

Quibi stands as a textbook example of what not to do when it comes to launching a streaming service. It also shows how even those with very deep pockets can fail. Quibi did not make a dent when it came to brand recognition, despite snagging some big names for its shows.

The doomed service also desperately tried to appear modern and high-tech. Quibi focused on people watching content on mobile, and blocked screenshots from being taken. Its sub-10-minute shows were designed to hoover up the TikTok and YouTube audience, but that didn’t happen.

Apple didn’t try to reinvent the wheel

Quibi’s failure stemmed at least partially from bad luck. Launching a streaming service aimed at commuters at a time barely anyone was commuting was a recipe for disaster. Nobody could have predicted the pandemic.

However, Quibi’s concept was deeply flawed, which is why many treated the service like a punchline. As co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman wrote in a note explaining the shutdown (emphasis mine): “Quibi is not succeeding. Likely for one of two reasons: because the idea itself wasn’t strong enough to justify a standalone streaming service or because of our timing.”

Apple TV+ is no Netflix or Disney+ when it comes to subscribers. (Apple hasn’t actually released paid subscription numbers, but all indications suggest they’re nowhere near those of competitors.) But Apple TV+ also did not generate any measure of the derision that greeted Quibi. Instead, it’s largely stayed under the radar, while quietly racking up hit after hit and, increasingly, awards.

As Apple fans, we are classically drawn to the big, flashy reveals that changed things. The iPhone was a gamble that altered what we expected of the phones we carried in our pockets. The Mac and the iMac changed what we expected from a personal computer. And so on. Steve Jobs was a master of these “I’m betting everything on red” gambits. That they worked so frequently shows what a genius Jobs was.

Under Cook, Apple functions like a more conservative company. We get year-on-year, iterative improvements that make good products greater and great products essential. The new iPad Air 4, for example, doesn’t set out to fundamentally redefine what a tablet is. And yet one early reviewer said that, by building on what Apple already got right, iPad Air 4 might be the best tablet ever made.

Growing slowly, but steadily

Likewise, Apple TV+ is fairly traditional in its ambitions. It leans more heavily into drama than transient reality TV, as Quibi did. While it hasn’t yet rolled out a zeitgeist-defining, Breaking Bad-size hit, Apple TV+ also has not produced a single, unequivocal bomb. Everything on Apple TV+ is solid to great. Rather than cutting corners by, say, securing the rights to stream Friends for a year, the service steadily built a collection of original properties with plenty of rewatch value.

Now, in direct contrast to Quibi’s focus on short videos, Apple TV+ execs are buying up movies by acclaimed directors. Every step of the journey is about presenting good, old-fashioned entertainment — not throwing things at the wall to see viewers will squeeze in a 10-minute reality show during a lunch break.

Apple could easily have chased headlines like Quibi did by buying into the idea that it had to be inherently disruptive. If it delivered short shows, and made them only viewable on the iPhone or Apple Watch, Apple’s strategy would have sparked a hundred op-eds. The idea would have been aggressively different — and terrible.

Instead, Apple followed a slow-but-steady path that means, a year down the line, it’s continuing to gain momentum without generating drama-filled headlines.

Quibi’s failure should serve as a lesson to Silicon Valley about how not to do a streaming service. Apple stuck to its guns and wasn’t bullied into trying something radically different to take on the likes of Netflix. It’s just producing top-shelf programming, knowing that concentrating on quality will pay off in the long run.

Now, with the death of Quibi, Apple TV+ has one less competitor to worry about.