A few weeks before Warner Bros. Discovery launches its new streaming service HBO Max/Discovery+, Max, TechCrunch spoke with WBD CTO Avi Saxena and Chief Product Officer Tyler Whitworth about building the new platform from scratch, launching new features, improving functionality, adding new technology, and designing the overall product.
They also outlined the technical steps the company took to ensure Max subscribers have a smooth viewing experience.
Unsurprisingly, merging two streaming services isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Overall, the company underwent 12 months of planning to build a cohesive platform that serves all types of customers.
Saxena explained that to speed up the process, teams of engineers from both sides collaborated.
“Bringing the teams together was truly a MasterClass in engineering, organization, design and architecture,” Saxena said. “We hired all the teams that worked on front-end technology, the team that worked on payment technology, the teams that worked on user authentication, all aspects of the product.”
“The team has had a very rigorous discussion about what we really want in our product to best serve the customer,” added Saxena.
It’s safe to say that WBD has a lot to prove with Max, given its not-so-good reputation with the HBO Max app, including multiple outages and complaints of playback issues, audio issues, and bugs.
Even WBD’s CEO and president of global streaming and gaming, JB Perrette, said that HBO Max and Discovery+ had their respective “deficiencies,” he admitted during WBD’s press event in April. The company also said in its announcement that Max would bring a new video playback experience that provides a smooth and cinematic experience for users.
“Performance is one of the most important parts of the platform,” Saxena told us. “So to improve performance, number one from the start, we set a goal that every app 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 application greater resiliency. CDNs are a group of servers that cache and stream content to nearby end users while keeping the content secure. Essentially, networks help speed up the delivery of content.
“So when something goes wrong, the product continues 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, trusted by millions of businesses for storage, databases, and cloud computing.
“In any given month, we deliver more than an exabyte of content, which equals 1,000 petabytes a month, which is a huge amount. And you can’t rely on a single CDN to do that,” added Saxena.
(For reference, an exabyte is a large unit of digital storage.)
“When we started building Max, we obviously had the benefit of learning a lot from HBO Max and even Discovery+, and we really focused on three things that we had learned,” Whitworth said. “One, do the basics better. You know, the things that customers really care about, how the product works… Second, we knew we really wanted to make it easy for customers to find and view the content they love. Third, how do we make it easier to use.”
In addition to performance, the main improvements that WBD focused on were:
- Personalization Features
- Simplified navigation menu
- Best experience for children
- Easier login and payment process
For starters, Max will have individual user profiles that are designed to offer more personalized recommendations based on your viewing habits. Users will also get a personalized home page. Max will have recommendations across all platforms, a first for the company. By contrast, HBO Max only has recommendations like “More Like This,” which appear on the screen when users finish watching a TV show or movie.
The recommendations are driven by both human curation and machine learning.
“While we want to offer personalized options to our customers, we also want to retain the option to promote some of the content that we are very proud of,” Saxena said. “So we went with the hybrid approach, where most of the page is generated using machine learning. And then our editors have the option to override.”
When HBO Max initially launched in 2020, only parts of HBO Max were dedicated to human-curated recommendations.
“We’re excited to take that human and algorithm combination across the product, whereas before we were a bit more selective and limited where it was done,” Whitworth added.
Another priority was making the content easier to find. Max will have a new content navigation menu at the top of the screen, genre hubs, and dedicated content pages for major WBD-owned brands: HBO, Discovery Channel, Food Network, HGTV, and more. Also, there is a new shortcut for users to add a title to their favorites list.
Max also gives parents the option to set new profile options for their kids such as Little Kids, Big Kids, Big Kids and More, Tweens or Teens.
“We created these categories that make it a little more intuitive. Because not everyone knows what TV-PG means… (We) want to make it easier for people to quickly understand it and see how it works,” Whitworth explained. “I have three children myself, and sometimes using these children’s features on streaming products isn’t as easy as it could be.”
Netflix is a streamer that allows users to set different maturity settings: kids, TV-PG, and PG.
Another rival streaming service, Disney+, offers kid-friendly experiences to younger children. So Max is likely targeting slightly older kids who want to watch titles like “The LEGO Batman Movie,” “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai,” “Scooby-Doo,” and more.
Max users also receive new alerts notifying them of failed payments. Also, Paypal is now a payment option.
The streaming service will give users a new login process, so they’ll no longer need to enter their credentials with their TV 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, sound quality Dolby Atmos and the ability to stream to four devices at once.
Whitworth said the launch of the latest plan gives the company an opportunity to bring better video quality and more downloads to customers. “We thought that giving customers more choice was generally a better direction to go. And we’re excited to see how customers use it in the future,” said Whitworth.
It’s important to note that HBO Max subscribers previously had access to 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 broadcasts of their favorite titles like “The Last of Us”, “Lord of the Rings”, “Game of Thrones” and “The Dark Knight” trilogy. , among others.
In particular, Whitworth also noted that the engineering team built a “really cool” live platform that can “deliver any type of live content,” he stated.
In the past, HBO Max has broadcast live UEFA Champions League matches in Brazil and Mexico. In January of this year, the streamer began broadcasting live national sporting events, giving subscribers access to live US national soccer matches.
The company has yet to announce which live sporting events will launch on Max.
“I think we’re excited about what could become live in Max. We’re still working out what that will look like, when it might happen, what will or won’t be included,” Whitworth added.
Regarding the overall design, Whitworth said the company intentionally didn’t want Max to look drastically different from its HBO Max predecessor.
“We wanted the transition to be pretty seamless for our HBO Max customers. So we really saw the product more as an evolution of HBO Max than a revolution,” Whitworth said. “You’ll see that it has a lot of the look and feel and some similarities to HBO Max, so it wouldn’t be much of a transition for those who use HBO Max all the time.”
When asked about any further plans for the future, Whitworth declined to go into detail. However, he noted that the company is exploring “better opportunities to find content when you’re actually in the video player.”
“There is a long list that we are very excited about, and ultimately it will be based on what customers like and how they use our product, and we will evolve in the way that works best for our customers,” he said.
While Max will essentially look like a revamped HBO Max, aside from the new blue color and slightly different name, it will also contain most of the Discovery+ content.
The company is also set to launch new content on the service, including a “Harry Potter” TV series and a “Game of Thrones” spin-off.
The streamer will launch in the US on May 23.