June 21, 2007

Flock 0.9 lands gracefully

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The Flock project has been building a "social Web browser" since 2005. The upcoming Flock 0.9 release adds new blogging features, integrates media streams into the browser, and includes an overhaul of the Flock bookmark system. It's not perfect yet, but Flock 0.9 is a big leap forward.

This release is a major update to the Flock 0.7 series, and a lot has changed. Since I tested a pre-release of a beta version, I wasn't too concerned with Flock's stability or performance. It did crash a few times while testing, and had some unsurprising performance issues that may be ironed out before the 0.9 release.

Flock has gotten a major facelift in this release, pulling away from the "slightly rebranded Firefox" look. The browser adds a mini-toolbar right below the standard location bar, new subscription icons in the toolbar, and other assorted user interface updates. The new look is very busy; some users will love the new "Web 2.0" look and feel, while others will be turned off.

With its new appearance, Flock looks slightly out of place on GNOME desktops. Unlike Firefox, Flock's main toolbar doesn't inherit GTK+ themes on GNOME, so if you're using a non-silver theme, Flock's chrome doesn't blend in with the rest of the desktop.

It's my world

When you first launch Flock, you'll see a custom-generated home page called "My World," which is a three-column page with a search engine bar and links to all of your social services. The columns are your bookmarks, feeds, and media streams.

Yahoo! is the default search engine, but you can change this to Google, Ask.com, or other search engines. You can also add custom search engines easily, so if you search Last.fm frequently, you can set that as the default for the My World page instead.

Speaking of search, the live search feature is nifty. As you type a search term into the search box in the toolbar, the live search provides a drop-down menu with results from Yahoo!, pages you've visited recently and pages that are set as favorites, and also offers the option to use several other search engines -- which you can customize through Flock's preferences. You can use live search with Yahoo!, Amazon, Craigslist, Technorati, and a few others -- but Google isn't an option.

The concept of the My World page is pretty good, but the execution could use some work. First, there's very little you can customize. For instance, the order of favorite sites is based on the sites that you've visited in your favorites recently. I'd rather be able to pick the sites that appear under Favorite Sites manually, so that the sites I need to go to every day aren't pushed out by sites that I happen to visit a few times a week or month.

I'm sure that this feature will evolve as Flock gets closer to 1.0. And for users who don't like the My World feature, there's nothing preventing them from resetting the Flock default homepage to another site.

Blogging from Flock

Bloggers will see a number of improvements in Flock 0.9. First off, Xanga and Blogsome have been added to the list of blogging platforms supported, in addition to WordPress, Blogger, LiveJournal, Typepad, and some self-hosted blogs.

The editor has improved, and now displays previews, supports tags for blog posts, and allows image insertion. You can also use the blog editor in conjunction with the Web clipboard -- if you're browsing and see something you want to use on your blog later, just drag text, pictures, or URLs over to the clipboard for later use. Of course, the clipboard can be used for non-blogging purposes as well. Researching a paper online? It'll come in handy.

However, I wish that the clipboard saved information about where you clipped things from. Right now I use Google Notebook to save snippets from Web pages, and I like the way it automatically saves the page URL and title along with the text. The Google Notebook extension for Firefox also allows you to clip images, so the only advantage to Flock's clipboard is that it integrates well with the blog editor.

Flock's support for Firefox extensions is pretty good. I tried the Notebook extension with Flock and didn't have any problems. It even allowed some drag and drop with the blog editor, though not of images.

One improvement Flock ought to implement is a notification to save blog posts before you exit the browser. While I was testing Flock I had a half-composed post sitting in the blog editor, and forgot about it when restarted the browser. After the restart, I realized that Flock hadn't asked about the post, and it was gone, gone, gone.


Prior to this release, Flock only offered bookmarks, excuse me, "favorites," via social bookmarking services del.icio.us and Shadows. Flock 0.9 drops support for Shadows and adds Ma.gnolia support, as well as support for local bookmarks that aren't stored on a social service at all.

The support for local bookmarks is welcome. Even though del.icio.us has the option of making bookmarks private, I prefer not to submit bookmarks to things like pages for administration of services.

The Favorites menu gathers local bookmarks, online bookmarks, and feeds. If you open one of your feeds from the Favorites menu, it pops open the Feeds sidebar and opens the feed (but not the actual site) in the browser window.

Flock's handling of del.icio.us bookmarks, though, still doesn't compare with that of the Firefox extension from del.icio.us. With the extension, I can set up folders on the toolbar for all bookmarks with certain tags. For instance, I use firefox:toolbar to tag any favorites that I use regularly as part of my work, and firefox:planet to tag the various Planet sites that I visit to catch up on what's going on with open source projects like Ubuntu and Fedora. There's no way to do this within Flock with online bookmarks.

Users can easily search favorites, so it's not like you have to go digging through all of your bookmarks by folder, but I'd like better ways to organize them. Overall, Flock has improved its bookmark system, but it could use more work to make it truly convenient.

Media streams

YouTube addicts will want to check out Flock's new Media Minibar. This revamped feature lets you browse media "streams" from Flickr, YouTube, Photo Bucket, and AOL's Truveo.

One option for browsing streams is to view the defaults from each service. For example, if you want to see what the most recent additions to YouTube are, or browse Flickr's public photos that have been deemed interesting, Flock comes with those default feeds. You can also subscribe to specific users' media feeds on those services. For instance, I set up subscriptions to my youngest brother's feed on Flickr, so that whenever he adds a photo or set, I can just browse it in the little media bar.

The implementation is slick. You can hover your mouse over a photo to get a larger thumbnail, so you don't need to waste the time opening the full picture just to get a better look. The minibar also sports search and filter features so you can search media sites from Flock's toolbar without needing to load them. Want to look for all of XTC's videos on YouTube? It only takes a few keystrokes. You can then browse the thumbnails in the Media Minibar and see the rating, title, length, and number of views each video has received.

I like being able to set up Flock to subscribe to user streams on Flickr, but it doesn't offer the option of subscribing to Flickr pools at this time -- though based on the discussion on the beta testing list, this seems to be a feature folks want. I'd like the option of subscribing to something like the Can Has Cheezburger Pool rather than having to subscribe to each member's feed individually.

As it stands, though, the Media Minibar is a nice way to browse media from online photo and video services. It's also a good way to waste an hour or two, by making it dead easy to flick through interesting videos and photos.

A nice take on Firefox

In addition to its unique features, Flock 0.9 also adds a few new features that have already shown up in Firefox 2.0. For instance, this release sports inline spellchecking, anti-phishing features, and session restore.

I've been checking in on Flock since its early days in 2005. It's been an interesting evolution, and I'm glad to see that the project is getting close to a 1.0 release.

Flock isn't for everybody, and it's still developing, but the concept is sound and the execution is shaping up well. Flock integrates social services and browsing very well. Its developers have taken an already great application and made it better, which is what open source is all about.

As a side note, I think it's too bad that Flock and Songbird are being developed separately off the Firefox codebase. If the two browsers were to combine forces, Flock's "social browser" and the Songbird "desktop Web player" together would be a truly killer application.

Flock 0.9 testing is not public at this time, but the release should be available shortly. Check the Flock blog for updates, and see the download page for the most recent releases.


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