April 11, 2008

Flock 1.1 offers nectar for social butterflies

Author: Lisa Hoover

When we looked at Flock 0.9 last year, the social Web browser showed a lot of potential. Now that it's over the 1.0 hump, the Flock team has made good on the application's promise. Maybe too good -- while Flock serves up a lot of content on a single page, you practically need super-powers to take it all in. Once you cut back on the sensory input a bit though, it's a pretty slick Firefox alternative for anyone with a ton of cyber friends.

Since it's based on the popular Mozilla browser, Flock functions nearly the same as Firefox, right down to the keyboard commands. Flock installed quickly and smoothly for me. It immediately recognized all of my Firefox settings, including the links and RSS feeds I keep on my toolbar. My bookmarks (which Flock calls Favorites) were thoughtfully accounted for in the Favorites Manager, yet stored in a separate file in case I didn't want to integrate them.

Although I have loads of plugins and extensions cluttering my Firefox browser, its display positively pales in comparison to the amount of activity Flock packs onto its main browser screen. I counted 23 different buttons and text fields just from the basic installation. If you customize your toolbars to add extra functionality, you could theoretically end up with three times that many.

Flock's sidebar manages your RSS feeds, email, favorite Web sites, blogging services, social networking services, and Web clipboard. A media manager bar across the top of the home page contains media streams from accounts like Flickr, YouTube, Gmail Notifier instead. Flock's integrated webmail serves no purpose for me, but others may find it useful.

Version 1.1 really shines in its enhancements to the MyWorld page, including the Friend Activity Feed. Once you've logged into all your social networking services, you can drag and drop messages from one friend to another. For example, if Sally makes a good restaurant suggestion via Twitter, I can drag that message to John's Twitter icon in my sidebar and he'll receive a link to view Sally's message. If a particularly interesting picture comes across my Flickr feed, I can drag it over to a contact on Facebook, and he'll receive a notification to view the image.

MyWorld is a wonderful way for anyone immersed in social networking to interact easily with contacts, and an easy way to transition from passively watching friends' activities to an active exchange of information. Being a part of social networks adds a certain level of constant chatter to your life, and that translates visually into Flock's features as well -- there's a lot of information to assimilate. Most if it can be temporarily turned off or toned down, however.

In addition to the Flickr integration already in place, Flock 1.1 also now supports Picasa Web Albums.

Extensions and plugins

Your Firefox extensions don't migrate to Flock because Flock's developers (understandably) prefer users adopt ones developed by its community instead. Nevertheless, most Firefox extensions work just fine. I tested about 10, and all loaded and worked perfectly, except for one plugin that utilized the sidebar.

Flock's own extension library has dozens of plugins to choose from, and most resemble standard Firefox plugin fare. Again, I tried about 10, and they worked just fine. The only one that really raised my ire was Me.dium's privacy policy, the company watches too -- and collects, saves, and aggregates your data). I willingly installed the plugin so my beef isn't with its purpose, just with its method. When I installed the plugin, it also installed itself on my Firefox browser as well -- without asking -- and defaulted to on. Privacy lovers, this is not the extension for you.

Overall, however, if you need a way to manage your online social life and integrate it into your workflow, then you need Flock.

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