MasterNewMedia
Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi
 


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Talk Back To The Web With Flock, The Social Browser

If you are an early adopter, one of those like me who likes to try and experiment as early as possible with these fascinating new media technologies, you are already probably familiar with Flock, the social browser built on top of the FireFox engine.

flock logo.jpg
Photo credit: Daniel Lackey

But if the early news of Flock have passed by you too fast to really have a go at it, I think that I have seen enough "good" from Flock to suggest to the ones of you who make the web work for them, to definitely give a good whirl to this elegant new browser.

What is so good about Flock is that this is the first browser that does not consider anymore the browser user a mere passive consumer of content. If you are an independent publisher, a news reporter, a blogger, Flock enables you to talk back to the Web without having to fire up other tools.

With Flock you can blog and post directly to your publishing platform, you can bookmark pages directly on del.icio.us, you can post and interact with Flickr, while utilizing one of the most elegant and soothing browser interfaces out there.

This is why Flock has been labelled the social browser: because it opens up for everyone the ability to contribute, share and talk back to the Web in a direct and easy fashion.

I, Ricardo Lobo and Kevin Borgia, here at MasterNewMedia, have gone out to check Flock in more detail while scouting for what others had been saying about it on the Web.

Flock is a new browser tailored to the needs of the user-generated web, integrating blogging, wikis, podcasts, photo-sharing and other common features of the social web into a single platform. The pre-beta version is now available, and initial reactions indicate the browser is a powerful Web 2.0 platform, but a few kinks need to be worked out before it can be safely adopted.

Built on top of the open-source code for Mozilla Firefox, Flock looks and functions like Firefox, but offers unique features its cousin does not.

Despite these similarities, Flock has some new and interesting features that set him aside. Flock allows the access to several internet services, such as social bookmarking, blogs and Flickr directly from its own interface. Presently, Flock is on pre-beta release and as such it suffers from some problems of stability and functionality.

flock_credits.gif

The Web 2.0 phenomenon, with the multiplication and dispersion of services that require an active participation of the user, created the need to integrate several services in a single platform. That challenge is the starting point for Flock, the first social browser.

Flock's main features are the advanced management of favorites, the integration with social bookmarking, the feed support, blog integration and the "shelf".

Flock's favorites manager is one of the key features of this browser. To add a page to the favorites the user just needs to press the star on the left side of the URL box. Once a site has been added to the favorites the star turns orange and remains orange to remind the user that site is a favorite.

navigation_bar.gif

The favorites manager can be opened by pressing the three star icon on the navigation toolbar. Inside this manager the favorites are organized in two ways, by tags and collections. To switch between them the user has to press the respective tab.

favorites_manager2.gif

The tags can be typed in when the user adds the favorite, for that the user as to choose star and tag from the favorites menu or by pressing the small arrow on the right of the star. Flock lets the user determine if we wants to open the star and tag box every time the star is pressed.

The collections let the user organize his favorites in toolbars. To add a favorite to a collection and respective toolbar the user has to select add to collection from the favorites menu. To organize, delete and rename the favorites the user has to open the favorites manager.

To make it easier to select a favorite toolbar there is a drop down menu on the right of the favorite toolbar.

favorite_toolbar_menu.gif

The integration with social bookmarking is very practical. Once a social bookmarking account is configured in Flock, every time the user presses the star to add a site to the favorites, Flock adds the same information to the social bookmarking account. Flock syncs the favorites and every modification on the tags or description made on a favorite locally affects the same favorite on the bookmarking account.

When a site has a feed available Flock detects it automatically and puts an orange icon on the right side of the URL bar. To read the feed the user presses the icon and Flock enters on feed mode.

feed_icon.gif

The feed reader mode can also be used to read the feeds available on all the pages of a collection. This can be done by opening the favorites manager and press the orange icon in front of the collection name. Flock allows the user to sort the feeds by date or source and collapse or expand them.

favorites_manager.gif

When a web page that has a feed is starred, Flock saves this information on the favorites manager. These feeds are cached and updated every hour.

Flock comes also with an integrated blog editor represented on the main navigation toolbar by the quill.

The first time this editor is opened Flock asks the URL of the blog you want to edit and tries to detect the type of software powering your blog installation. According to the the Flock team this blog editor works with WordPress, Movable Type, TypePad and Blogger.

The Flock blog editor allows the user to set up several blog accounts and switch between them using a drop down menu. The posts can be published directly from Flock's editor or they can be saved as drafts. The blog editor also allows the user to add Technorati Tags to his posts.

The Flock blog editor is a WYSIWYG editor with some very basic formatting options, including bold, italic, indent and lists.

Using the blog topbar it's possible to retrieve published posts and drafts, but it's not possible to save the changes made to them, at least when using WordPress.
There are only two options available on the blog editor: publish and save as draft.

Another shortcoming of Flock is that it doesn't recognize categories.

When the editor publishes a new post the post is added to the default category and the user is unable to pick other. The developers are aware of this problem and are trying to come up with a solution. The solution they are working on seems to be the use of tags as a means to associate posts to categories.

Another useful toolbar that comes with Flock is the Flickr topbar. This bar allows the user to add photos from this service to a blog post, simply by dragging them. Entering a Flickr username in the topbar will automatically download thumbnails of the photos and make them available.

The Shelf works like a clipboard and lets the user store pictures, URLs and portions of text found on the web. For each stored item, Flock saves a link as a reference to the source. The Shelf was designed to make blogging easier. To add one of the items to a blog post the user just has to drag it to the blog editor. In case the item is a text, the blog editor formats it as a blockquote and adds a citation. The items on the Shelf are persistent and they will not disappear until the user deletes them, not even when the browser is closed.

shelf.gif

Since Flock has been built on top of the Mozilla Firefox code, some of the extensions available for FF also work on Flock. In addition new extensions designed specifically for Flock are becoming available. A list of extensions compatible with Flock can be found on the project's site.

Similar to Firefox, Flock has a search box that allows the user to start a search directly from the browser. Some engines, like Google, Amazon.com or Yahoo are available by default, but many more can be downloaded and installed.

search_box_engines.gif

Additionally, in Flock the integrated search box has the ability to search in the user history and favorites. When typing a keyword Flock looks for matches on the history and favorites and displays the results. The search on the engine itself only starts when the user presses the enter key.

This is all more powerful when you know that Flock memorizes and saves each and every page you visit creating a perfectly searchable history of all content that you have visited.

search_box.gif

Flock is presently in pre-beta and as such some kinks have to be worked out before it can be used as a fully reliable browser. But even then, Flock may not be a browser for everybody.

To make sure we were getting the right first impressions on this new tool, here at Kolabora we have gone out to check also what others, out there on the Internet were saying about the new Flock.

This is what we have found out:

Tech blogger Robert Scoble described need for a single platform like Flock in a recent article in Wired:

"Today we're using too many different services to share our stuff on the internet. Blogging, photo sharing, wikis, maps, podcasting (and) video blogging are all separate services. They probably will be joined in one system with common user interfaces."

Is Flock that system? Probably.

"Flock promises to leave the user with a strong social web browsing experience. With bookmark syncing with del.icio.us, integrated blogging and Flickr support, Flock looks like a real treat," wrote Paul Stamatiou in this review.

Flock breakthrough additions include five features no other browser has: an advanced favorites manager, integrated blogging, feed support, Flickr integration, and the shelf.



Favorites Manager

"This is where Flock really takes off, Stamatiou wrote. "Activated by the three-starred icon on the navigation toolbar, the favorites manager is easily the most robust new feature. It manages your favorites, whether it be in a collection or not, your history, and lets you sort favorites by tags that you give each one. The tags feature looks like it might have some use for large favorites libraries, but taking the time to type in tags for each favorite is asking a bit too much."

"However, collections is where all the magic happens. Essentially, you can have several favorites toolbars and select between them with a handy drop down menu which appears on the top right of the browser window. This is by far the best addition in my opinion."

"Additionally, if you have a del.icio.us account enabled, all of your starred pages are automatically synced up to your account." Stamatiou heralds this feature, stating "there's not much to say about this great new feature. It just works. Give Flock your login info, and if you give it the authorization to, your favorites will be added to your del.icio.us account."

But this can be overly complex, wrote Craig O in this review:


"The Favorites manager, while it looks nice, sucks...I just don't like having to open the Favorites Manager all the time to categorize my content."

"You could do nearly all of it through the Toolbar at the moment. Yes, it will allow other features later on but for now, I need my navigation and web browsing experience to work seamlessly."



Integrated Blogging

Flock integrates blogging capabilities right into the browser, a feature easily opened by clicking the quill icon on the toolbar. Stamatiou proclaimed the easy usability of this feature.

"The first time you open it, you will be asked to provide the URL of your blog. Through that, Flock will go online and determine what type of blog you have. It was able to setup my WordPress powered blog just fine." However, Stamatiou complained that he couldn't access a MoveableType blog with Flock.

Although it is convenient to have a blog editor built in, some have said the editor is poor. "It doesn't support WordPress Categories, for instance, it doesn't have a Quick Link for blockquoting and most importantly, it doesn't seem to allow you to view/edit previous posts or drafts," wrote Tom Raftery in this review.

The lack of categories is a large problem for many bloggers, but Flock team member Chris Messina explained this issue on Raftery's blog:

"What we are going to do, however, in a future release, is download your categories and add them to your tags autocompletion library. When you add a tag that matches an existing category, we will check off that category when you post your blog entry. So while it is not ideal per se, it is the only option we have unless the blogging tools change. We went through a lot of issues on this one and ended up deciding that tags are a superior way to deal with favorites and blog posts since you can also unify them across the whole browser whereas categories tend to be more specific to only blog posts."



Feed Support

Similar to Safari capability, Flock incorporates feeds directly into the browser. If you are on a page that has a feed, an orange feed icon will appear to the right of the URL. Clicking that icon takes you to its rendering of the feed, Stamatiou wrote.

"The Feed support is one of the coolest features I ran across. Wrote Dion Hinchcliffe here. "Flock has an extremely clean and clear layout for views of RSS feeds. Load up a page that has a feed on it and a nice yellow feed button pops up and lets you switch to an elegant feed display that throws out all the clutter on a typical page and focuses on the feed's content.



Flickr Integration

"A Flickr topbar has been created," Stamatiou wrote, "It allows you to enter in any Flickr username and view that person's photostream. Dragging a photo to the browser window fires you over to that Flickr page. Dragging a photo to the blog editor adds it into your blog entry."

But this feature is also not fully functional, and problems have been reported with logging in to Flickr in Flock.



Shelf

Flock also comes with a useful and unique Shelf feature, which Stamatiou described as "clipboard on steroids".

"Throughout your browsing experience you can hold on to important images, links, or portions of text by dragging it to the shelf. You can retrieve them again later whenever you please and they stay put after restarting Flock."



Conclusions

The particular usefulness of Flock is that it is an answer to the necessities of a specific group of people, those who are involved on the development of the social web.

For those Flock can be a valuable tool. To the rest, those who do not write on blogs, do not tag or bookmark items through delicious, rarely want to search through the history of your visited pages and know nothing about Flickr, this may just be not just worth your while.

Flock is available for Windows (8.0 MB), Mac OS X (10.0MB) and Linux (8.3 MB) you can download the installer from Flock's site.

A more stable beta version is expected by the end of the year, you can see what the Flock team has planned for that release on the public beta roadmap.

To get started with Flock follow these useful tips.

Robin Good, Ricardo Lobo and Kevin C. Borgia -
 
 
 
Readers' Comments    
2006-10-21 17:10:54

whoozhe

It appears the main gripe most have about Flock is the way favorites are handled.
Humans are programmed to see things in some order. Until a user becomes familiar with Flock's way of doing things the favorites are perceived as chaotic. This may be enough to turn potential users away. If a user was able have a dual set of favorites, one traditional and one the Flock way then this would allow the user time to get use to the Flock way. The minimal change I would like to see is the ability to aplphatise my fovorites.



 
posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, November 23 2005, updated on Friday, February 26 2010


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