Viewers have long complained about the early HBO Max app’s tendency to crash, and its lack of discoverability features. There have been a number of overhauls and fixes since then. Now we know why. Turns out that HBO Max launched its apps before they were ready in order to keep up with its competitors. The app was “never intended to go global” or to suit the needs of a direct-to-consumer market, according to an interview that Sarah Lyons, HBO Max’s head of product experience, gave Protocol. The network wanted to build an audience first, and then fix the app’s flaws as the service scaled up.
While Lyons admits that the early days of HBO Max were rocky, she thinks the company made the right decision. We’ve been changing out the engine of the plane while we’re flying the plane,” she said. “I do think it was the right decision to try to balance both,” said Lyons.
HBO Max first released its app in May 2020, to join an already saturated streaming ecosystem that included Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV+ and others. At the time, both HBO Go (the network’s on-demand app for cable subscribers) and HBO Now (the standalone app for cord-cutters) were still available, a fact that confused many subscribers. The network has since retired both apps.
Viewers have flocked to Reddit since the app’s initial launch with complaints that spanned platforms and devices. “We’ve been trying to watch the Harry Potter movies and literally every 15 min or so we get an ERROR message and have to force close the app. Another time it froze completely. It’s absolute garbage. I don’t have this problem with any other app or streaming service,” wrote one user in a thread on the r/HBOMax subreddit from January 2021 entitled “Why does this app suck so hard?”
For many viewers long-accustomed to advanced recommendation algorithms on Netflix and other streaming platforms, it was hard to get used to HBO Max’s lack of discoverability features. Lyons admitted that HBO Max wasn’t built with discovery in mind, and the app tried to address this by putting every new show on the app’s home page. “You didn't have to go find anything, because whatever [show] you were looking for was going to be at the top of the home page,” said Lyons.
While Engadget’s early review of HBO Max detailed its flaws, we pointed out that it was still a “smart bet” for the company. Since then, the service has made many improvements, including a new Apple TV app and updates to its apps for Roku, Playstation, Android TV and others. But following a recent $43 billion merger with Discovery, the biggest change is yet to come. The plan is to merge both Discovery Plus and HBO Max into one unified platform.
HBO Max ended 2021 with 43.8 million subscribers, when combined with the network’s cable subscribers of HBO who also have access to the streaming service. It’ll soon absorb at least another 22 million subscribers from Discovery Plus. While there could be more bumps down the road, viewers can at least be assured that HBO Max has more experience under its belt now.