November 18, 2005

A first look at the Flock social browser

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

One of the nice things about open source software is that it gives developers the ability to reuse and re-purpose code. Take, for example, the Flock Web browser, recently released as a pre-beta developer preview based on the Firefox code base. Flock sports a layout similar to Firefox, with a navigation toolbar, bookmark toolbar, a search tabbed interface, and so forth. But it has been dubbed a "social browser" because it integrates with weblogs, photo and bookmark sharing, and other "social" services on the Web.

Many people are using del.icio.us to manage their bookmarks. While del.icio.us makes it easy to get to your bookmarks from any computer, it doesn't integrate well with the bookmark functions in Firefox or other browsers. In Firefox, you either need to use an extension or JavaScript bookmarklet to add bookmarks to del.icio.us.

Flock, on the other hand, uses del.icio.us to manage "Favorites" so you can share bookmarks between computers, and make easy use of del.icio.us bookmarks in Flock. With Flock, just click the "Star this page" button and the page will be added to your del.icio.us bookmarks. By default, you need to click on a tiny arrow next to the star button to add del.icio.us tags to bookmarks, but you can change this in the Flock preferences so that you're prompted to add tags to each bookmark before they're added to your del.icio.us collection.

In addition, you can browse your del.icio.us bookmarks in Flock's Favorites without having to visit your del.icio.us page. Flock also allows you to sort through bookmarks by their tags. You can also assign favorites to Collections, which are basically ways of grouping bookmarks by categories.

With Firefox, I make extensive use of the Bookmarks toolbar, but I never have enough room on it for all the sites I use frequently. When I'm working, there's one set of sites that I want to bookmark, and when I'm browsing to catch up on news, there's a different set of sites, and when I'm just browsing for fun there's yet another set of bookmarks I'd like to have handy.

Flock eliminates this problem by offering multiple Favorites toolbars based on collections, and making it easy to switch by providing a selector on the right side of the Favorites toolbar. This way, I can switch between my work, news, and recreational bookmarks with a quick click of the mouse.

While I like the fact that Flock uses del.icio.us to manage bookmarks, some folks might prefer de.lirio.us or other social bookmarking services. Right now, Flock doesn't support those services, but its developers have indicated that they plan to add such support.

Blogging features

The current version of Flock has support for publishing to WordPress, Movable Type, Typepad, and Blogger blogs using the built-in blog editor. Support for LiveJournal is supposed to be on the way, as is support for other weblog platforms.

Luckily for me, I use WordPress, so I was able to test out Flock's blog editor and other blog publishing functions. I first set up my username and password for Flock to post to my blog, then added a few blog entries using Flock.

If you're browsing a page that you want to mention on your blog, Flock has a "Blog This" menu entry in the right-click context menu that pops up the Flock blog editor with a link to the page and its title. The editor is pretty sparse at the moment. It includes a title field, blog selector (in case you have multiple blogs), and a few options for text-formatting.

If you do a lot of blogging, you can open the Blog Topbar, a larger menu that lists your most recent blog entries, a button for creating a new post, and a "Drag stuff to blog it!" button. If you highlight some text and drag it to the "Drag stuff" button, Flock presents the blog editor window with the text formatted as a blockquote, and a link to the page you selected the text from.

Another interesting Flock feature is the Shelf, a clipboard that holds items you've copied from Web pages you've visited. The main purpose of the Shelf is to collect items that you might want to use in your blog later. The Shelf holds text items and pictures. This is probably my favorite feature in Flock so far, because I often find interesting stories or pages I'd like to mention on my blog, but don't have time to write up a blog entry right then. The Shelf holds items even after you exit Flock, so if you copy a few items into it and then exit the browser, they'll be there the next time you start it again.

I do wish that it was possible to customize the format that Flock uses when it cites text from a page using the "blog this" feature, or when cutting and pasting from the Shelf, but that's not a big deal. The editor is also a bit limited, but I suspect that it will be fleshed out more as Flock develops.

Quick search and feed reading

Like Firefox, Flock has a search box on the right side of the navigation toolbar with several search engines to choose from. Flock's search has a little more than Firefox's, though. In addition to searching Yahoo!, Google, Wikipedia, or whatever, Flock also searches through your browser history and favorites when you start typing a search term. This can be mighty handy when you're trying to find a page that you've visited recently, but can't quite remember where.

Flock seems to support the same search plugins that Firefox supports, so you can add a number of sites to the search box. I use the Internet Movie Database search quite a bit, as well as the Dictionary.com search.

You'd expect a "social browser" to have support for syndication feeds, and Flock doesn't disappoint. At first, I found the feed features to be a bit counterintuitive. After a few days, however, I started to like the way that Flock deals with feeds -- though it could use a little improvement.

When you add a favorite, Flock picks up feeds associated with the page, and automatically creates an feed aggregation page from those feeds. So, let's say that I've bookmarked freshmeat, Slashdot, and NewsForge and put them in a collection called "Tech." Without any additional action on my part, Flock also discovers that those sites have RSS feeds and starts to grab those feeds. When I browse my Favorites, the Tech collection has a button next to it called (appropriately enough) "Feeds." Clicking on that button brings me to a aggregated page created from those feeds.

The only thing I don't like about this approach is that Flock doesn't make it easy to add bookmarks to a collection. It should be possible to designate a new favorite as part of a collection when you create it, but Flock doesn't provide that option -- at least at the moment.

Extensions

Like Firefox, Flock supports extensions to add or change functionality within the browser. Flock's site already has a growing collection of extensions, and a much longer list of Flock-compatible extensions is available at the Ultimate Flock Extensions List.

Firefox extensions may not be compatible with Flock by default, but the developers are working on some tools to make conversion easy. I browsed the list of extensions that are available, and it looks like a good selection so far. I particularly like the Web Developer extension.

Some have noted that it's possible to add much of Flock's functionality to Firefox with extensions, but the Flock developers have countered that they want Flock to be "a complete end-to-end user experience." This makes a lot of sense. While users could grab one extension for Flickr integration, another for del.icio.us integration, and yet another for blogging features, it would be annoying to keep track of all of the extensions.

Summary

Even though Flock is still in development, I found it to be stable and free of show-stopping bugs. Since Web browsing isn't typically mission-critical, I recommend curious users jump in and try it out. There are a few interesting glitches, and Flock is a little slow for some operations (like editing tags in bookmarks), but nothing major gets in your way. Be sure to read the release notes and 13 things you can do with Flock before taking it for a spin.

Flock isn't for everyone. If Web browsing is mostly a read-only experience for you, then stick with whatever browser makes you happy. The features that set Flock apart from Firefox probably won't appeal to people who don't maintain a Weblog, Flickr collection, or del.icio.us bookmarks.

On the other hand, if you do spend a lot of time on those activities, Flock is worth a look. There's still work to be done, but the early release shows promise. If the Flock developers deliver on all the features they have announced, this browser should be really useful when it matures.

Category:

  • Open Source
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