By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 1:41 am
Half a decade ago, a startup called Flock was formed to build a “social browser” of the same name–a Web browser aimed at people who like to use the Web to share stuff and otherwise interact with other people. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the road the product ended up taking has been uncommonly twisty.
The original preview version of Flock, based on the same Mozilla browser code as Firefox, debuted in 2005. (Back then, only students could join Facebook; Twitter didn’t exist, period.) The first beta, which appeared a leisurely two years later, was significantly different and better; I liked it so much it became my default browser. Version 2.0 improved on it further. But version 2.5, which appeared more than a year ago, was instantly obsolescent: It was based on Firefox 3.0 even though it appeared only shortly before Firefox 3.5 did, and there were rumors that Flock’s creators planned to dump Mozilla and move to Chromium, the open-source version of Google’s Chrome.
Fast forward to right now. It turns out that the rumors were true: Flock 3.0, which is now available as a beta download for Windows, is built on Chromium. Pretty much by definition, that means it’s significantly different from any version before it. But it turns out that the company hasn’t even tried to recreate the old Flock. This isn’t so much an upgrade as a reboot–an all-new answer to the question “What should a social browser be in 2010?”
The list of Flock features that are gone is much longer than the one of those that are still around: It’s lost its Media Bar image browser, built-in blogging tools, integrated Facebook chat and other Facebook-related features, MySpace support, some of its options for routing updates between social networks, and more. I’m sure that some folks who already love Flock–it has 7.5 million users–will find the new version jarring and unsatisfying. The company isn’t abandoning these people altogether: It’s released a Mozilla-based Flock 2.6 that incorporates recent security fixes, and says it’ll consider releasing an update to old-school Flock built on Firefox 3.6.
But from now on, the Chromium-based Flock will be the center of attention. Flock CEO Shawn Hardin told me that the company made the switch to get on a more modern, efficient browsing platform; he says it’ll be much easier for Flock to keep pace as Google improves the Chrome/Chromium platform than it was with Mozilla. (The Mac version, however, requires some extra work: Hardin says it should be out later this summer.) As before, Flock isn’t aiming to topple the world’s most-used browsers, but Hardin says the company would like to see that 7.5 million user base grow tenfold in the years to come, and he thinks Chromium will help get it there.
Old Flock aggregated updates on your friends’ activities into a sidebar to the left of the main window. In new Flock, the sidebar is on the right, where it’s less distracting, but the basic idea is the same. You can also post Twitter and Facebook status updates, share the current page (with automatic Bit.ly URL shortening). and reply to your friends’ updates from this sidebar.
Wanna find what your pals are saying about a particular topic? The sidebar had a search field. But Flock also cleverly builds friend search into its address bar: Start typing into it, and you’ll see results from Google, your history, and Favorites, just as in Chrome–but also links to status updates from your friends that contain the keyword(s) you’ve typed. A page called Explore lets you see more of these status updates at one time.
(Speaking of search, Flock 3.0’s Chromium underpinnings aren’t its only new Google connection: Google is now the default search engine, replacing Yahoo. Yahoo fans can opt to switch back.)
Flock’s other major social feature-and its most innovative idea–is all-new. Groups let you collect related people (from Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube) and RSS feeds using “Cards.” A Group could contain all your high school buddies, for instance, or an assortment of people and feeds relating to sports. You do the collecting via slick search and drag-and-drop tools which also let you combine multiple people from different accounts onto one card–a handy way to merge the multiple personalities of someone you know on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and/or YouTube in one place.
Groups and Flock’s Favorites are services as much as they are software: They automatically synchronize their data among all your copies of the browser on every computer you use, assuming you’ve signed up for a Flock account. Having a Flock account also gives you access to a new feature called a Flock Profile, which gives you a public page on the Web with updates from services you’ve enabled in Flock, Favorites you’ve elected to share, and other links you choose. (Here’s mine.)
Flock Profiles remind me of Google Profiles, which incorporate Google’s controversial Buzz. But I don’t think anyone will accuse Flock’s version of violating anyone’s privacy: They only appear if you turn them on, and don’t disclose your Groups or otherwise display information about your relationships that isn’t otherwise public.
In this beta, Profiles do seem to be buggy. When I looked at mine in Flock, the only Twitter updates I saw were my retweets; in IE, I got non-retweets, too…but my Facebook updates were missing. They’re also a tad spartan–you can’t even upload your photo. But if Flock builds out the idea it could be cool.
Profiles aren’t the only part of the new Flock that feels spartan. I understand and approve of its creators desire to build a Flock that’s more in line with today’s streamlined, lithe browsers than its somewhat bloated predecessor. But even though I’m willing to give up much of old Flock’s bevy of features, I wish the new one had at least slightly richers Twitter and Facebook support. For example, I don’t see straightforward ways to perform basic jobs such as checking Facebook friend requests and Twitter direct messages–two essential tasks that were a cinch in old Flock.
Despite the 3.0 label, this is really a 1.0 product. It’s a nice one–nice enough that Flock has a good chance of becoming my browser of choice again, several years after I found myself using it less and less. But I’m at least as interested in Flock 3.5–or whatever the next significant update will be called–as I am in this beta. I hope it isn’t too far off–a Chromium Flock that added back some of the old version’s richness without the bloat would please both existing aficionados and lots of people who have yet to give Flock a try.