The Marco Polo video chat app has seen a dramatic rise in usage during the coronavirus crisis, which has put a financial strain on an app that’s free.
So a new premium version of Marco Polo, Marco Polo Plus, started rolling out this week to select users and will be available to the general public by mid-May for $5 monthly. Some key features from the free version were taken away, and will be made available only to Plus subscribers.
Still, the Plus version of Marco Polo is in addition to the no-cost version, which will remain free, says co-founder Vlada Bortnik, who joined us on the Talking Tech podcast to announce the new features.
Marco Polo is different from other video chat apps like FaceTime and Skype, which rely on live, real-time communication. In Marco Polo, it’s more like a walkie-talkie, in that one person sends a video and the other replies to it. The idea is to stay connected, without having to worry about getting schedules in sync to meet up, says Bortnik.
“Chat apps are great if you have lots of free time,” said Bortnik In an earlier interview with USA TODAY. “But if you’re like most of us – moms who are homeschooling, running a business and cooking dinner – it’s hard to find the time.”
The Marco Polo name stems from the old call-and-response swimming pool game. You shoot a “Marco” video message and send it to your friend who then responds with a “Polo” response video. Thus, you’ve made contact, but you don’t have to both be ready to connect live at the same time. Instead, you respond when you have free time.
Hot app: Cut off because of coronavirus? Connect with Marco Polo walkie-talkie video app
Video chat Zoom alternatives: What about Hangouts, Skype and Teams?
The new features of Marco Polo Plus:
• Audio messages. Or, as the app calls it, “Polo from anywhere (yes, even in a bathrobe.”)
• Speed up the process. Play back the messages (called “Polos”) with faster speed control 3x, vs. the current 2x, and get access to a scratchpad to make notes as the Polos play. The ability to play back Polos faster is now only available on the paid version, as well as photo uploads.
• HD video. Play back messages in higher resolution.
Bortnik says the extra speed feature is her favorite of the new offerings.
“As someone who gets a lot of Polo messages, some people drag their message out a little longer, and now I can control how I consume their polos,” she says. “One of the beauties of Marco Polo is that you can talk uninterrupted, which means…someone can talk uninterrupted, which can make for a very long Polo.”
The faster speed will help and so will the scratchpad “so I can remember all the questions they asked me” and answer when it’s her turn.
In March 2020, Marco Polo saw a 16 times increase in new signups and a three times increase in activity. Earlier this month, the Marco Polo community sent 20,000,000 Polos in one 24-hour period. The app has received over 10 million downloads, with 900,000 alone in March, according to market tracker Sensor Tower.
The monetization question has been one dogging Bortnik for months, and many of the new features came from suggestions by Polo fans. “They want us to make the business sustainable,” she says. “They rely on Marco Polo as a primary way of communicating with their family.”
However, at least in some circles on Twitter, the move isn’t going over well. Some users are concerned that the old app will have features taken away, and that they’ll be forced to pay.
“We know change can be surprising, in particular to a beloved app like Marco Polo,” says Bortnik, to the Twitter response. “Our new free version of Marco Polo continues to provide unlimited ability to chat, with an unlimited number of contacts, and the unlimited ability to create groups.”
She adds that some features in the old version of Marco Polo have been “improved and added” to the Plus version. For example, the 2x speed on playing back Polos, which is being taken from the free version, is now 3x for the Plus version.
Existing users will have the option to switch back to the original Marco Polo version, she says.
Bortnik reiterated on a company blog post her positioning on monetization. “We will never show ads in Marco Polo. We will never use ‘likes’ or social comparisons or manipulate algorithms. We were built to be good for you.”
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter