My summer of HBO Go: What HBO's app can teach Netflix (and vice versa)

HBO Go's the future of TV...and also the past. Here's one cable-cutting editor's summer trying out HBO's mobile service.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read

HBO Go: Great app, frustrating business model.
HBO Go: Great app, frustrating business model. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

I woke up at 8 a.m., bleary-eyed. I realized something was wrong. It hit me: I forgot to watch "Curb Your Enthusiasm" last night. New episodes tend to post instantaneously, or at least a half hour after the start of broadcast. How could I have missed it? I started to plan when I'd watch.

Suddenly, I realized, I'd become TV Man again.

I've spent a summer trying out HBO Go, the iPad/Android/iOS/browser streaming-video app HBO launched at the end of April. While I bemoaned its limited availability for most people, I was able to get a trial code to look at the service--something I couldn't have done otherwise in NY, even if I still subscribed to cable (which I don't). Meanwhile, I'm still watching Netflix as my go-to general streaming service, although I'm considering a drop in my plan from two DVDs and streaming down to no discs at all.

Both HBO Go and Netflix represent two ends of a new world of streaming-video content that's simultaneously exciting and repelling customers. They tackle the issue from two different angles: Netflix is a standalone subscription service, an alternative to standard TV. HBO Go is a service that requires being part of an HBO-inclusive cable package in order to use; it's supplemental to standard cable as we know it.

At this point, neither one is perfect, but each can learn from the other. And I hope they do, because The New Television, as I like to call it, is something I love. I just don't want it to get muddied along the way.

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What HBO Go can teach Netflix:

Offer complete content packages. Netflix's here-today, gone-tomorrow collection of spotty streaming content is hard to track. I feel like I'm always updating my watch instantly list in light of disappearing shows. HBO Go's comforting because it has nearly every HBO show dating back to "Sex and the City," and every season and episode. Hulu Plus, as a service, offers better show permanence but still shuttles seasons on and off for some big-ticket offerings.

Welcome people with clear lists of what's new and exciting. HBO Go starts up like a high-end Web page, complete with a splash screen showing upcoming or current seasons and special-edition content of note.

Extras and special features. Instant-view streaming content often gets stripped of the "extras" you get on DVDs. Sometimes that's for the better, but occasionally there are shows or movies worth the added attention. HBO Go's shows are often studded with episode-specific extra featurettes, placed when appropriate on show season/episode pages.

Same-night episode viewing. iTunes relegates me to being a morning-after viewer for most shows, scanning iTunes after midnight for a new episode posting. HBO Go's big shows posted midway through the episode--I saw "Game of Thrones" episodes appear near the half-hour mark.

Beautifully designed show pages.
Beautifully designed show pages Screenshot by Scott Stein

What Netflix can teach HBO Go:

Subscription without cable. Obviously, HBO's entire business model is based on its cable subscribers and relationship to cable companies. That doesn't mean I can't dream of HBO boldly letting people pay directly for HBO Go's services. If HBO can sell episodes on iTunes, then there must be some model where a modified HBO Go could work for non cable folk such as myself. Maybe that means I don't get the latest seasons, or I suffer some delay compared with "HBO Go Plus" subscribers. Whatever it is, I would pay for my noncable HBO, but HBO won't let me.

If it must require cable to work, then don't limit by cable provider. Time Warner Cable customers can't use HBO Go. Cox customers can. This some-have-it, some-don't system is incredibly confusing, especially since the actual HBO Go app once activated can work anywhere regardless of location in the U.S. Finding your code is also confusing, and doesn't attract customers. Then again, HBO Go isn't really about getting customers as much as it is about offering a new service to existing customers. Which brings me to...

Offer pricing tiers. Netflix will allow you to pay as little as $7.99, but far more than that depending on what you order. HBO Go could explore offering packages of service as an alternative to requiring the whole cable subscription. I'm not going to pay a minimum $55 a month extra for a ticket to access HBO Go.

Work on more devices. Netflix's instant-streaming brilliance rides mainly on how many devices it supports. Everything from laptops to TiVos, Blu-ray players and TVs, even the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, and Nintendo 3DS have Netflix. Its ubiquity gives it power. HBO Go is available on iOS devices, Android, and via Web browser, but it should be everywhere. Quite possibly, HBO Go was designed to be mobile and not be a TV/set-box app, but it's available for Google TV hardware, so why not elsewhere?

I never really cared about TV when I watched it via cable. That's why I disconnected over a year ago. DVRs helped keep short-lists for much-watched shows, but for me, on-demand viewing has always been the way I've liked to go through seasons. I watch in bursts. I'm a big fan of doing the same on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go, all of them great at offering me a to-do list of what to watch.

It took a summer trial of HBO Go on the iPad to sneak its seductive hooks in me. Really, I left cable television over a year and a half ago because of its cost. Cable's offerings are myriad, and DVRs are easy ways of hoarding content, but there's too much out there and DVR hard drives fill up like out-of-control e-mail boxes, suddenly in desperate need of watch-and-delete weekends. Streaming on demand is the easy counter-solution, but most streaming services feel broken in some key way, either via a hobbled catalog or the video quality.

HBO Go is the perfect go-between--a video service that's elegantly laid-out, has a deep, comprehensive back-episode catalog, and looks crystal-clear on the iPad. As I've lamented, though, the service is only offered as an unlockable bonus for cable subscribers who already pay for HBO, and only for a subset of those customers at that. What a shame, though--because unlike IP address-based services like Time Warner's app, HBO Go works anywhere, like Netflix. I signed up for a press trial courtesy of an e-mail address/code sent to me by HBO. It didn't require any location-based authentication, and it works in a similar way to activating iPad magazine subscriptions via a code from a print magazine. Theoretically, there's no need to tie the service to old-fashioned cable--it just happens to be the way HBO earns revenue.

I want the content and features of HBO Go, and the pricing/availability of Netflix. I know that's asking for an impossibility, but if the two services got a little more like each other, maybe I'd find myself enjoying both just a little bit more--and paying for the services more reliably, too.

I simply won't pay more than $50 to climb back up the cable tiers to get access to HBO Go. It's a shame, because that HBO Go is pretty fantastic. It's just not $600-plus-a-year fantastic. I understand HBO Go as a tool to keep current customers--I'd just like it to function as a way to angle for new customers like myself, too.