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Flock: The New Superstar Browser

If you like the Firefox browser, you’ll love Flock, which is rife with built-in social software features.
June 23, 2006

You know that drawer in your kitchen full of everything from screwdrivers and matches to lint removers, Post-it notes, and picture hangers? That’s what the Internet is starting to look like for folks who are hooked on social Web technologies such as blogging, photo sharing, social bookmarking, tagging, news feeds, wikis, and map mashups. That is to say, there are a lot of tools out there for creating, uploading, and sharing content – and many of them work quite well. But they’re a jumble, and you always lose time searching for the right one.

Flock, however, is the world’s first browser built with social computing in mind. It does everything a Web browser should do, plus a lot of things that other browsers can’t do without plugins or extensions. It won’t organize your utility drawer, but it might speed you through your Web tasks so that you finally have time for that long-neglected housework.  ;-)

Flock Inc., a year-old, 15-person outfit based in Mountain View, CA, released the “0.7 beta” version of Flock (for Windows only) on June 13. I’ve been testing it for the last several days. I’m impressed – so much so that I’m almost ready to abandon Firefox and make Flock my default browser.

You might want to audition Flock for a while before you do the same, since it still has a few quirks and unfamiliar behaviors. But overall, the code-jocks at Flock have done a brilliant job of integrating functions that used to require me to fragment my attention across a dozen different websites and software tools.

Flock is the first browser to take full advantage of two fairly new sets of Web 2.0 resources: first, the open-source Mozilla browser code base, which gives Flock all the same features you’re accustomed to in Firefox, such as tabbed browsing; and second, the rapidly multiplying application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow external parties to interact with database-driven services like Flickr. Those APIs are what lets Flock’s programmers give you the tools to manage much of your personal information aura – your bookmarks, images, blog posts, tags, and favorite news sources – from a single application.

My favorite thing about Flock? The “blog this” option in the right-click menu, which beautifully illustrates how Flock integrates with other online services and simplifies common tasks such as creating a blog entry.

When you first download and install Flock, it asks whether you use a blogging service such as Blogger, TypePad, Movable Type, or Live Journal, and invites you to enter your username and password. If you do, the “blog this” button will open a composing window with a pre-formatted link to the page you’re looking at. You can type your comment, click “Publish,” and wait for the post to show up on your blog. It’s as easy as that to share the Web tidbits you discover throughout your day. You may never have to log into your blogging services’ private interface again.

A related feature of Flock is almost as delightful: Web Snippets. If you see a sentence or paragraph you might want to reuse somewhere else – in a blog post or an e-mail, for example – you can highlight it and choose “Send to Web Snippets” from the right-click menu. As the name suggests, this feature sends the extract to the browser’s snippets collection, which shows up as an optional bar at the bottom of the screen. From that bar, snippets can be dragged-and-dropped back into any HTML-based form, such as the “body” area of an online e-mail editor. It’s a lot easier than the old procedure for reusing content, which often involved bookmarking the link to the page where you saw an interesting passage, coming back to it later, relocating the passage, and cutting-and-pasting it into an e-mail or a blog post.

Speaking of bookmarking, Flock takes care of that. The same big “Star” button that lets you mark items as local Favorites will publish those items to your online linkstream at social-bookmarking sites or Shadows. (The drop-down menu for the Star button includes an intriguingly mysterious item called “Super Star,” the function of which I have not been able to determine. If you know what it does, please leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post.)

And I haven’t even mentioned Flock’s built-in news feed, which eliminates the need for a separate RSS news aggregator, or its photo-sharing features, one of which lets you drag-and-drop photographs into HTML forms, such as the comment fields at other people’s blogs or MySpace profiles. To accomplish this, Flock cleverly connects with your account at Flickr or Photobucket, uploads the photo to that account, then places an HTML link to the photo into the comment field. That way, anyone who clicks on the link later will be taken directly to your photo.

Another photography-oriented feature is the photobar, a bar at the top of the browser window that shows a parade of thumbnail images from your Flickr photostream or anyone else’s. If you set it to connect with your squash buddy’s photostream, say, you’ll automatically see the latest pictures of his two-year-old when you open Flock. That’s a very cool feature – and up to now, it’s only been available using plugins or standalone programs from companies like Bubbleshare.

Flock integration isn’t flawless. My first try at blogging directly from Flock worked fine. The second time, when I clicked “Publish,” Flock indicated that it couldn’t connect with TypePad’s servers. I tried twice more with the same result, then gave up, figuring TypePad was having server trouble. Then I went to look at my blog – and saw three published copies of the same post. (The moral of that story: no matter which remote blogging tool you use to publish an entry, it pays to proofread the new entry on your actual blog before you wander on to your next task.)

But considering how generally amazing and functional this beta release is, Flock deserves to be cut some slack over the remaining bugs. Because Flock is built on Mozilla, the same code base used by the Mozilla Foundation to build Firefox, the Flock team will be able to expand the program’s features indefinitely. Also, most of the scores of extensions people have written for Firefox will also work in Flock – so people defecting from Firefox to Flock hardly have to give up anything.

When I spoke with Peter Andrews, a developer at Flock, a few days before the beta launch, he told me the company’s mission was to build a “next generation Web browser” for the age of social computing (see my story “Revamping the Web Browser,” June 9, 2006). Unlike the 1990s or the early 2000s, Andrews said, ”You now have large numbers of people interacting on the Web through communities like MySpace and Yahoo 360, and thousands of bloggers producing content. The Web of the ’90s was very much a one-to-many web, with the vast majority of people just consuming. Now you have a growing community of producers. We’re building a two-way Web – and at Flock we’re integrating the functionality to support that.”

Well put. And, what’s more, it really works.

I’ll be doing an extended review of Flock for a story here on the site next week. Meanwhile, go download it. Be sure to try out some of the nifty tricks, like snippet-posting and bookmarking – and leave your comments below.

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