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HBO Max’s Latest Change Is One Most Users Might Not Notice

Illustration: Martin Gee

HBO Max is no longer the streaming service you once knew — and I don’t say that because its content is disappearing or because it plans to shack up with Discovery+. No, as of today HBO Max is now literally based on a bedrock of new technology compared to what it had under the hood a year ago: The service announced that it’s pushed out its final updates in its plan to overhaul its back end, initiated in 2021 following a bad reputation of crashes and customer complaints. The update isn’t a drastic makeover — HBO Max still looks like HBO Max — but it improves stability across devices and adds a smattering of features that were previously unavailable.

Here are the big changes, according to the company’s announcement:

• Shuffle button functionality expanded to mobile devices — previously only available on the desktop and connected TVs
• SharePlay support for iPhone and iPad users (in the U.S.) to sync watching with friends and family while on FaceTime calls.
• A dedicated home for downloaded content
• Tablet support for landscape and portrait orientations
• An enhanced screen-reader experience with new navigation elements and functionality
• The ability to split screens with other apps on behavior-supported mobile devices
• Updated navigation overall
• Refinements to visual design
• Chromecast stability improvements

Doing this so-called “replatforming” thing while the app is live is a challenge, but it’s important. Longtime HBO subscribers probably remember how disastrous the earlier days of HBO Go were, when one episode premiere of Game of Thrones could grind millions of screens to a halt and cause mass fandom hysteria. Sarah Lyons, a former product executive with HBO Max who worked on the overhaul, likened the process to “changing the engine of the plane while flying the plane” in April. The company made sure to have the updates done just in time for the release of prequel series House of the Dragon on August 21. It also undoubtedly dovetails with Warner Bros. Discovery’s long-term strategy of merging Discovery+ and HBO Max, which is on the books for summer 2023. Before The Sopranos and 90 Day Fiancé go head to head, HBO Max will at least run a little more smoothly.

HBO Max’s Latest Change Is One Most Users Might Not Notice