A few weeks before Warner Bros. Discovery launches its new HBO Max/Discovery+ streaming service, Max, TechCrunch spoke with WBD chief technology officer Avi Saxena and chief product officer Tyler Whitworth about building the new platform from the ground up, rolling out new features, improving the functionality, adding new technology and designing the product.
They also outlined the technical steps the company has taken to ensure Max subscribers have a smooth viewing experience.
As you might expect, merging two streaming services isn’t exactly a walk in the park. In total, the company underwent 12 months of planning to build a cohesive platform that serves all types of customers.
Saxena explained to us that to speed up the process, teams of engineers from both sides participated.
“Bringing the teams together was truly a masterclass in engineering, organization, design and architecture,” said Saxena. “We engaged all the teams that worked on front-end technology, the team that worked on payments technology, the teams that worked on user authentication, every aspect of the product.”
“The team has had a very rigorous debate about what we really want in our product going forward to best serve the customer,” added Saxena.
It’s safe to say that WBD has a lot to prove with Max, given his not-so-great reputation with the HBO Max app, including multiple glitches and complaints about playback issues, audio issues, and bugs.
Even WBD’s CEO and president of global streaming and games, JB Perrette, said HBO Max and Discovery+ had their respective “shortcomings,” he admitted at the WBD press event in April. The company also said in its announcement that Max would provide a new video playback experience that provides users with a smooth and cinematic experience.
“Performance is one of the most important parts of the platform,” Saxena told us. “So to improve performance from the start, we set a goal that each app should be at least 20% faster than the existing app.”
To achieve this goal of faster performance and more stability, Saxena told us that Max uses multiple CDNs (content delivery networks) to give the app more resiliency. CDNs are a group of servers that cache and stream content to nearby end users while keeping the content secure. Essentially, the networks help speed up content delivery.
“So if something breaks, the product will continue to work,” he explained in layman’s terms.
Max uses four CDNs: Amazon CloudFront, Google, Akamai, and Fastly. It also uses AWS as its primary cloud provider, which millions of businesses rely on for storage, databases, and cloud computing.
“In any given month, we deliver more than an exabyte of content, which is 1,000 petabytes per month, which is a huge amount. And you can’t rely on just one CDN to do that,” added Saxena.
(For reference, an exabyte is a large digital storage unit.)
“Obviously when we started building Max, we had the advantage of learning a lot from HBO Max and even from Discovery+, and we really focused on three things that we learned,” said Whitworth. “First, do the basics better. You know, the things that really matter to customers, how the product works… Second, we knew we wanted to make it really easy for customers to like and view the content they like. Third was how we can make it more user-friendly.”
Besides performance, the main improvements WBD focused on were:
- Personalization features
- Streamlined navigation menu
- Better kids experience
- Easier login and payment process
For starters, Max will have individual user profiles designed to provide more personalized recommendations based on their viewing habits. Users also get a personalized home page. Max gets recommendations for every platform, a first for the company. HBO Max, on the other hand, only has things like “More like this” recommendations, which pop up on the screen when users are done watching a TV show or movie.
The recommendations are based on both human curation and machine learning.
“While we want to provide personalized choices to our customers, we also want to retain the ability to promote some of the content that we are very proud of,” said Saxena. “So we chose the hybrid approach, where most of the page is generated using machine learning. And then our editors have the option to ignore.”
When HBO Max first launched in 2020, only parts of HBO Max were dedicated to human-curated recommendations.
“We are excited about applying that human/algorithm combination throughout the product, where previously we were a bit more selective and narrow where that was done,” added Whitworth.
Another priority was making the content easier to find. Max gets a new content navigation menu at the top of the screen, genre hubs, and dedicated content pages for WBD’s top brands: HBO, Discovery Channel, Food Network, HGTV, and more. In addition, there is a new shortcut that allows users to add a title to their favorites list.
Max also gives parents the option to set new profile options for their child, such as Little Kids, Big Kids, Big Kids Plus, Pre-Teens, or Teens.
“We created these categories that make it a little bit more intuitive. Because not everyone knows what TV-PG means… [We] wants to make it easier for people to quickly understand and see how it works,” Whitworth explained. “I have three kids of my own, and you know, sometimes it’s not so easy to use these kids’ features in streaming products.”
Netflix is a streamer that allows users to set different maturity settings: children, TV PG and PG.
Another rival streaming service, Disney+, focuses its kids’ experiences on younger kids. So Max will probably target slightly older kids who want to see titles like “The LEGO Batman Movie,” “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai,” “Scooby-Doo,” and more.
Max users will also get new alerts notifying them of failed payments. In addition, Paypal is now a payment option.
The streaming service is giving users a new sign-in process so they no longer have to enter their credentials with their TV’s remote.
A notable – but pricey – addition to the updated platform is the new tier, “Max Ultimate Ad-Free” ($19.99/month), which gives users access to more 4K UHD content, 100 offline downloads, Dolby Atmos- sound quality and the ability to stream on four devices simultaneously.
Whitworth said the launch of the ultimate plan gives the company the opportunity to offer customers better video quality and more downloads. “We thought giving customers more choices was generally a better direction. And we’re excited to see how customers use it going forward,” Whitworth said.
It’s important to note that HBO Max subscribers used to be able to access 4K content, but only paid $15.99 per month. Now they will have to shell out more money if they want to watch high-quality streams of their favorite titles such as ‘The Last of Us’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy, among others.
Notably, Whitworth also noted that the tech team has built a “really awesome” live platform that can “deliver any kind of live content,” he claimed.
In the past, HBO Max has live streamed UEFA Champions League matches in Brazil and Mexico. In January of this year, the streamer began broadcasting domestic live sporting events, giving subscribers access to live US national football games.
The company has yet to announce which live sporting events will be launched on Max.
“I think we’re excited about what could go live in Max. We’re still working on what that will look like, when that might happen, what will be included or not,” Whitworth added.
Regarding the overall design, Whitworth said the company deliberately didn’t want Max to look drastically different from its HBO Max predecessor.
“We wanted to make the transition quite smooth for our HBO Max customers. So we really saw the product more as an evolution of HBO Max than a revolution of it,” Whitworth said. “You’ll see it has a lot of the look and feel and some similarities to HBO Max, so it wouldn’t be a huge transition for those who use HBO Max all the time.”
When asked about future plans for the future, Whitworth declined to go into details. However, he noted that the company is “exploring better options for finding content when you’re actually in the video player itself.”
“There’s a long list that we’re very excited about, and ultimately it will be based on what customers like and how they use our product and we will evolve in a way that works best for our customers,” he said.
While Max will essentially look like a revamped HBO Max – save for the new blue color and a slightly different name – it will also feature a majority of Discovery+’s content.
The company also plans to launch new content on the service, including a “Harry Potter” TV series and “Game of Thrones” spin-off.
The streamer will launch in the US on May 23.