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Q&A with Hal Higdon

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Thursday
Feb162012

Gear's Thoughts: Technology, Flash and The Future

I often hear customers ask us what's up with Flash?  For the non-techy folks, we use a technology called Flex to do our programming, which results in requiring the user of our website to have Adobe Flash installed. Flash has come under scrutiny lately, especially from Apple, as a technology that is past its prime.  Apple forbids Flash from running on any of their mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad. However, it works just fine on a desktop computer, Apple, PC, iMac, Laptop or Desktop, (disclosure: I own 3 Macs, 2 iPads and 2 iPhones so you could say, I'm a Mac guy). We have been watching with great interest the development of both our application, user feedback, financial performance and industry trends, like every company does, to inform our future decisions on technology. 

We invested in Flash starting in 2007 when we made the decision to undertake a huge effort to convert our legacy technology to a modern technology stack.  By "stack" I mean that we re-plumbed every layer of our application, from database, to business logic to user interface.  It would take years.  At the time we started in January 2008, we predicted that the web would become much more immersive and eventually feel more like desktop applications than web-sites. That prediction has mostly come true, but the Web is in a continuous state of rapid change.  Apple, and others have begun to promote two methods for creating software: 1) Native code and 2) HTML5 web sites. By "native" code, I mostly mean apps. HTML5 is the latest version of the Web's primary language, HTML.

Today, HTML5 can accomplish much of what Flash has been able to do for years. It's not equal, but getting there; however everything has its pros and cons. The great thing about HTML5 is there is no "plugin" needed to run content, it just works in any browser, for the most part. I am often asked if we plan to continue building our web application using Flash, for which I hope this blog post answers our position. In the near term, yes, we will continue to invest in Flash. It is quite simply the most efficient development environment today for building complex, web-based applications. And by efficient, I mean the combination of developer time, testing time and design time. I believe that our customers frankly don't care what technology we use, as long as our products solve their needs, on the device they choose, at the time and place they want it. It is that requirement which forces any company to have multiple solutions based on the operating system and device where their software is going to be used.

We're doing things today that would be extraordinarily difficult and cumbersome in HTML5, on the edge of what's even possible.  Especially given some performance issues with handling large data-sets client-side. But, the writing is on the wall. Long term, we will move away from Flash, into a combination of products and technologies including HTML5, native apps and even desktop (traditional) apps. Frankly, we consider everything we build for the user interface in Flash today as a prototype of what's to come.

For us, our continued investment in Flash will help us build tomorrow's interface faster, easier and better. The longer we wait, the easier it will become as HTML5 libraries, tools, development environments and web browsers mature. We are also honing our user interface, getting tons of user feedback, and dissecting our approach to every piece of functionality. Likewise, we are constantly gauging the market to see what the role of the Web will be. If we were die-hard Apple devotees, we wouldn't even build web-based software, they would much prefer that developers build native apps that interact with the Cloud. We think that makes sense in some cases, and makes no sense in others. We strive to solve problems using the best technology possible.

Another amazing trend that has taken place over the last 3 years (since we re-engineered our technology platform) is the advent of mobile, touch interfaces.  Even if our website was already built using HTML5, the physical size and computation power of mobile devices demands that you have a tailored and customized user interface. Mouse & keyboard compared to finger and swipe are drastically different, requiring the designer to accomodate different use cases. Our application is highly interactive, form-based (tons of user input) and performs a lot of data analysis. You simply should not have the same interface when using a 27" iMac vs. using a 3.5" iPhone screen. Fortunately, that's exactly what we've built in our mobile and desktop products.  

We have been aware of these needs for years. It is also why we have a separate interface for the iPad and for smartphone screens. In fact, our current TP Mobile app is built using an HTML5 web-application wrapped in native code for use on Android and iPhone.  Our interface is even customized further for the iPad. Despite writing a new HTML5 mobile application from scratch just 2 years ago, the technology has already changed so much, we're scrapping the whole thing and starting over with a new approach for our future mobile needs. Things change. A lot!  The reality is, it always has and always will. Flash vs. HTML5 is no different. In our case, Flash works extremely well when you have a full-blown PC or Mac at your disposal, connected to the internet. However, the internet is the fastest changing, most disruptive technology the world has ever seen, and it will continue to evolve at breakneck pace. As a company, you just have to be willing and prepared to deal with it.

I think our ability to manage change is precisely why we have prospered through 12 years of Internet craziness. In fact, since converting to our Flash interface, we've had our best years ever, by far. We're very thankful for that, it inspires us. That success is really not a result of the product itself, but rather of our ability to re-invest in people and technology in order to continue on our promise of building the world's best training software for athletes and coaches. No matter if it's HTML5 or HTML16, C++, Objective C, Flash, Java, Ruby, PHP, .NET, Cocoa, C#, WPF or anything else, we've led the way for over a decade. THAT is what we do, and that will simply never change.

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    Gear's Thoughts: Technology, Flash and The Future - Posts - TrainingPeaks Blog

Reader Comments (25)

Frankly I deplore Flash. I have an older G5 PowerPC running 10.5.8 and after your change yesterday, I am no longer able to visit my dashboard on that computer. It brings up Flash installation, however I am at the farthest I can go with Flash/Safari/OSX combo's. Now I have to go to my work computer the enxt day and upload my activities and such. It is a hassle. I really wish you would jump on the HTML 5 train quicker, BUT I understand. It's your business, and you can run it how you want.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRon Heerkens Jr

@Ron I would say it's time to upgrade. The reality is that computers have 2-3 year life span. It's impossible for us to push the boundaries of development while staying compatible with older hardware. I feel your pain though, it's just part of the internet craziness. As soon as you buy some piece of technology, it's outdated by the time you are home.

February 16, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

@Ron Another thought (and recognize you are hitting a limit with Apple not supporting the PPC, not with us) is to use a different web browser. Try using Google Chrome and see how that works. A 5-1/2 yr old computer is a challenge. My 3 yr old iMac (Intel) works great though.

February 16, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

You have to grow where the business is going. Flash was right for the time and going forward with everything going stateless I don't believe how it currently runs on system, be it phone/tablet/laptop/desktop, there will be much of a future. Unfortunately, if I've read the coding right it will be harder on developers who want to wrap media in their content management systems. In that Flash takes a single media source, such as a .wav, and presents it in the Flash wrapper. HTML5 developers have to write wrappers for .wav, .mp3, .mp4, .wma, etc. That may effect storage capacity on the servers presenting the items, but it will be better for the end systems as they only have to get one of those items.
Any way it goes thanks for keeping abreast with the ever changing landscape.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterspokejunky

Thanks for this update. I love training peaks, with the exception of the UI - it's slow and quite buggy. The features underneath are what makes the site worth using, but with the competition out there making better and faster UIs it's nice to see the company looking at how to improve that. Cheers!

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterchadwick

@chadwick I am curious, you mentioned the interface was slow and clunky.. what browser and OS are you using? We've found issues with Safari (on Mac) specifically, otherwise, when we time loading and page rendering from competitors, we're often faster, by far, per task. Anyway, just curious. It's a huge difference between Safari and say, Chrome or Firefox (on the Mac). Thanks for reading!

February 16, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

Thanks for that post, it really helps to have some insight into exactly what's been going on with future development. I'm looking forward to seeing what's in store for the future.

It sounds like the strategy to de-emphasize Flash without outright replacing it right away is a good one. I hope that it won't take long for the feature set of HTML5/mobile/native interfaces of Training Peaks to surpass the Flash version. Not as some people are hoping as a direct replacement for the current site, only using HTML5 instead of Flash, but because the entire experience is improved.

In other words, I think the Flash site is good enough, but I'd love to see more features being adapted to the iPhone and iPad apps.

@ron It's likely that if the site were redeveloped using HTML5 that your computer wouldn't run it anyway.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge D

Can you shed some light on the future of WKO+ given your strategic focus on internet-related technologies?

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRolfK

Thanks for keeping us in the loop. I agree with Chadwick- as a coach and athlete I love the features in TP but I've been having some trouble with speed & crashes (on different PC machines w/ chrome & firefox). Thanks for keeping us updated & continuing to work on the site.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Coady

First of all congratulations on your business and service. It has allowed me to grow my own business and connect with my clients so that, although I am coaching remotely, it often doesn't feel that way.
I'm really pleased you will be heading away from flash in the future. Although it looks nice and (eventually) gets the job done it is a bit slow and clunky. I have noticed it getting better over the past year but maybe it is just that my internet speed has improved.
A question for you:
Are there any plans to continue with Desktop Companion? I really liked using it and there were/are some things that you can do with it that you can't online. I don't use it anymore because it just stopped working for me but I think if it was developed inline with any new technology it could be a really good addition. For coaches with multiple athletes or when you just can't get online (on the train, remote training camp, flying) it's really useful.
Take care and keep up the great work,
Ben Bright

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Bright

@Ben We are experimenting with different ideas and technologies regarding Desktop Companion (for those of you who don't know what that is, it is an offline planning tool that syncs to the online calendar). In short, yes, we do intend to re-engineer it and bring it back. I don't have a firm timeline at this point. HTML5 may be ideal in that it has local (offline) storage mechanisms, could work on a tablet or any computer (Mac & PC). So far, signs are good, stay tuned.

February 17, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

@RolfK WKO+ is still fully supported. We continue to focus on improving our web-based tools for now, that's about all I can say, because that's about all I know. We are not actively working on a port to Mac, so don't hold your breath. Then again, never say never.

February 17, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

@trainingpeaks The sluggishness of Flash isn't really anything to do with the browser or CPU speed, in my particular case, it's more about the overall design of the UI and just the overhead of the Flash runtime itself. I normally use a 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro, but trainingpeaks.com performs about the same on my 3.4 GHz i7 iMac at home. There's a lot of good usability rules that aren't being followed that would help a lot.

My comments below may seem overly critical but don't let that take away from the points I'm trying to make; trainingpeaks is a great tool, and I've been happy user for several years now.

I get the impression that the site hasn't used a great UI designer (not talking so much about the graphical designers as much as the workflow/layout designers), or if there has, they weren't given the freedom to simplify the application in a way that makes sense for the user. From an outside perspective, I can guess that the desire to have a very powerful modular UI with lots of widgets gets the primary attention from the developers and actual usability takes a back seat.

There is a tendency, especially for developers and users that are already familiar with a very complicated product, to resist simplifying a user interface. It's easy to justify - the product does a bunch-of complex, powerful things, and the assumption is that users who can figure out how to train with power can easily figure out a complicated interface. But, of course, that doesn't mean it's fun to use, or that it doesn't take more time to use than it should.

Using Flex especially can complicate the design because applications written with it tend to follow a desktop metaphors more than web metaphors. It's a neat idea, but in real-world execution it leaves users wanting something different - I have never met a Flex application that was actually good. It doesn't take long for users to figure out there are other websites out there with easy to use interfaces that do almost as much, if not more. Now they're left wondering why they have to use this Flash thing, especially if that's the plug-in that keeps crashing the browser or computer, etc.

I do like that training peaks has decided to built mobile apps - it's obviously where the market is going. But, let's be frank, the current implementations of the apps for iOS are pretty sub-par and they are painful to use for anything more than viewing the schedule. Yes, you can enter food, etc. with the app but it's so painful to do it basically isn't worth doing. These apps need a lot more polish to really be an acceptable choice.

Food tracking especially is where I find the current Flex UI to get in the way quite a lot. Most of the bugs I find in the UI are related to this, and it's hard to know exactly the right use cases the designers planned. Like a lot of complicated UIs, there are simply too many ways of doing the same thing and many of those don't work all that well.

If you compare the UI to other competitors out there, you quickly get the impression there are a lot easier and faster ways of doing interactions than that trainingpeaks.com has today. Places like fitbit.com for food entry or strava.com for workouts and so simple and provide a lot of power in a very easy interface.

I know a lot of users of trainingpeaks.com, myself included, who only use it because their coach or coaching company uses it, but they keep track of food or other things in other places. That, plus the performance management charts, are really the killer features of trainingpeaks.com, but without a good, modern UI, these competitors will be viable alternatives very soon. Right now, I see more people gravitating to strava.com than here - and those folks have a long way to go still in both UI polish and their feature set.

So as a professional, if I had to offer advice to Gear, I'd say to suck it up and rewrite the UI soon. You'll get more bang for your buck tackling that problem than adding more complicated features that appeal to a small subset of your users. Pay for a great usability designer to figure out how to simplify the current web and iOS UIs. All the tools you need for HTML5 development are there already - but Flash can be a fallback for a few interactive graphs if you need it for older platforms (and even that I would personally disagree with, given the great graphing packages out there that run in JavaScript space). If you improve the UI tremendously, you'll reap the benefits of an increased user base while keeping your more advance user base intact and happy.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterchadwick

@Chadwick I would say that our food tracking is certainly in need of help. It's not had a lot of attention for a few years. Thanks for the great comments.

February 17, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

The sooner you move away from Flash the better in my opinion. I find TP just doesn't work very well under Safari, but fine in Chrome, where is the sense in that? Both modern browsers and a up to date computer.

HTML 5 seems to be the way all major companies are going, so there must be something in it...

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGrant Smith

@Grant Yes indeed, if I could snap my fingers I would, it'll take just a tad more work than that. Safari really doesn't work well with Flash at all (not a big surprise).. Firefox, Internet Explorer and Chrome are all 10x better. Chrome is my default on Mac.. it's just better with a lot of subtle issues IMHO.

February 18, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

User interface doesn't matter the really cool thing would have be an API where we can interface the way we want and plug OSS software into it....

February 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel

Guys,

I think your flash interface for PC/Mac is very good and very impressive code. As a many year user, I'm very satisfied. I'm very much a Mac head also. I do think Native Apps are ok for mobile and even for the desktop provided they sync, which of course they will. Your business model of a yearly fee is fine too, I really don't mind paying for my data being stored and centeraly accessible like many cloud type services. The value your yearly fee offers is the library of workouts which I use a lot as I am my own coach.

That said I think the iPhone app can be a lot nicer and more important a desktop app and an iPad/driod tablet app should be developed to be even nicer than the current web interface. These native apps with your central data base are much more desirable that stand alone WKO in my opinion making your business model still very viable.

I'm OK with free apps of all devices, desk top included, and a reasonable yearly fee, as it is today. Time to make those apps kick butt on the dying days of flash.

My 2c! Good luck guys.

BTW, I have not played with Strava and actually have no desire to but perhaps some of the competition features should be considered by you guys and if somehow we could compete with each other from either platform we could co-exsist with less competition on which platform we use (That is a CEE to CEO meeting I would love to be at!)

again, good luck. You guys have helped me so much for a reasonable cost.

Dean

February 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDean Telson

It sure seems to me like you guys are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You are never (at least not with whats in the pipeline) going to get an immersive analytical experience strictly using a web-based solution. And I fail to see the reluctance in using a thick-client application like WKO+.

As a designer for Business Intelligence Analytics, I can honestly say that none of the analytical companies (Like BusinessObjects, COGNOS, MSFT, and Microstrategy) are there yet with a truly immersive analytical environment delivered via Web. A web based tool by its nature is for browsing data not analyzing data.

Furthermore you mention the time it takes to develop code, especially like a WKO+ port. Why not purchase a company (or software) that already has the OSX functionality (like Golden Cheetah). Their software and interface is light years ahead of WKO and TP for that matter. But they miss your proprietary algorithms.

I understand the frustrations with Flash, but also understand the reason you guys use it. Unfortunately, Flash is dead and its either you guys get up to speed and innovate or die, because its only a matter of time before someone comes along with better software.

And to be frank the UI on TP is horrid. It looks like it was developed by a 3rd grade graphic designer, with no thought about work flow, presentation, etc. You guys need a slick app (web or thick-client) that looks as good as it performs.

Just my .02.

February 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe C.

I use a Wahoo Fitness connector to upload my workouts from my Garmin watch to Training Peaks. A simple process but let's face it your iPhone mobile app is basically useless for feedback. To offset this I do the same upload to Garmin Connect which provide the graphs and data I need.
To be honest if Garmin were to come out with Coach interaction you boys would be in trouble. Move on to HTML5.

P.S. Where can I find a separate app for the IPad

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Mykytchuk

@Joe @John I've heard it all before. We were doomed when we switched from our classic interface to our current one. Many people said we were finished etc. Since then, our business has tripled, and I mean in revenue, not "eyeballs" or by some other vanity metric like "workout logged" ... or any other silly web metric. Bottom line, I agree with you, and we'll prosper for years to come because of our willingness to embrace change. You are kidding about Golden Cheetah right? Their UI of version 3.0 is a copy of WKO? Anyway, thanks for the comments, read through that old post on Slowtwitch, and remember "tripled".

February 20, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

I love your Training Peaks business in all aspects and think you all have done a great job. I recently sold my old macbook pro and went for an ipad2 and pocketed some cash...i also have an iphone and i upload my garmin data via the wahoo fitness app also. Training peaks has an app for iphone and ipad, but they are rather limited. Yes it's nice that we can do a few things on them but i wish you could maybe re-visit the apps and make them more interactive like the website on a normal computer. I know that you can't bring the flash to apple, but you can bring an app to apple ?!

I will continue to have to wait til i get to my work computer to log into Training Peaks to get any decent usage of the website done until you make all of us apple device people happy and re-tweak your apps for ipad and iphone!

PS: have you studied how many people have iPads and iPhones? just saying!? it's a pretty important market!

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Jordan

TP staff:

I think TP is your business and you handle it as you better think, but your business depends on (at least is based on) user athletes and coaches as well. So there are a lot of frustated people (I included) because TP can not be access plenty in our mobile devices.
Lets talk, we are outdoor people so we must go home (or office) to use TP?
That post was good but it does not give me any answer: will be count with a complete version of TP for apple mobile devices in next future or not?
TKS

February 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfrank

Any updates on this? 9 Months since this post, and I wonder if I should stick around or move to an alternative once and for all.
Just wondering if you can share your roadmap to this migration.

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeo

Leo, Check out this post and this blog. We're hard to make this happen as soon as possible. Thanks for being patient.

November 30, 2012 | Registered Commentertrainingpeaks

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