June 16, 2006

Flock beta rocks

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Flock is a "social browser" built on the Firefox code base, which integrates blogging, photo sharing with Flickr or Photobucket, "favorites" (a.k.a. bookmarks) using del.icio.us or Shadows, and other collaborative features. Last November I took a look at an early Flock release, and found it to be interesting, if a little bit rough. The Flock folks have been hard at work, and the new Flock beta release looks solid enough to be a must for users who spend a great deal of time blogging, sharing pictures, or using services like del.icio.us.

Most of Flock's functions are already available via Firefox extensions, but extensions carry a few problems. First of all, since they're developed separately from Firefox, they tend to get outdated when the Mozilla folks update Firefox and the extension developers fall behind.

Second, you have to take the time to actually find the extensions to do all of the separate functions. The Flock developers have targeted a set of functions that Web users want and build them right in to the browser. As it turns out, this works out pretty well.

Getting started

My main desktop is an AMD64 machine running Ubuntu Dapper. I thought I'd try Flock on that machine first, but I wasn't optimistic about it running on AMD64 without some tweaking. I've been able to run previous releases of Flock by using the 32-bit libraries, much the same way I've run 32-bit Firefox, but it took a little mucking around.

To my surprise and delight, Flock 0.7 is running just fine without any tweaking on AMD64 and x86 machines.

Flock's My News - click to enlarge

When you run Flock for the first time, you'll have the option of configuring the browser to work with your weblog, del.icio.us, and a couple of other services. Flock will also import settings from Firefox, including bookmarks, passwords, and authenticated sessions. Switching from Firefox to Flock was pretty seamless.

Flock also downloaded Flash the first time I ran the browser, and -- again to my surprise -- it worked perfectly.

Favorites and photos

Adding bookmarks, er, favorites, is easy -- and I like Flock's dialog for adding tags and a description (optional), but when it comes to actually using Flock's favorites manager rather than just using del.icio.us, you're basically presented with a flat list of links. It's really clunky and not very useful. The Flock developers are aware that the Favorites back end needs work, so this may be ironed out by the 1.0 release.

Flock gives users the option of using Flickr or Photobucket for uploading and managing pictures. I have a Flickr account, so I tried that out with Flock.

Flickr photo management is really well-integrated with Flock, and it's dead easy to manage photos from Flock. Open the Photo topbar and Flock will show photos that have been uploaded to your Flickr account -- or you can configure Flock to show someone else's Flickr account, and to notify you when they've added new pictures. If this isn't a killer feature for grandparents, I don't know what is.

Flock Flickr uploader - click to enlarge

If you're the voyeuristic type, you can simply browse public photos as they're uploaded to Flickr. I don't use Flickr often, but using the browse functions, I saw some really gorgeous nature photos taken by amateur shutterbugs and shared on Flickr.

Flock also sports a Photo Uploader application -- just click the Uploader button from the Photo topbar. Rather than using the typical "upload file" dialog, you simply drag and drop a picture into the Photo Uploader. Then, rotate and crop the picture from within Flock if you wish, assign the picture a title, description, and tags, and upload it straight to Flickr.

The upload options dialog lets you resize the photo and shows the size of the photo you're ready to upload. It also reports the current usage of your account.

Want to save or use Flickr photos? That's easy too. Flock has a Web Snippets toolbar at the bottom of the browser that lets you save photos, text, URLs, and notes.

Blogging with Flock

I tested Flock's blogging features with WordPress, but it also supports TypePad, Movable Type, LiveJournal, Drupal, Blogger, and a few others. If you don't have a blog but want to start one, the account preferences has a link that will take you to a page to choose between Blogger, TypePad, and WordPress.com.

If you're a blogging maniac, and have multiple blogs that you maintain, Flock will let you set up multiple blogging accounts. Since I maintain a strictly personal blog and a more public one, I found this to be pretty handy.

To start a blog post, just highlight some text, right-click on the page, and select Blog This from the context menu. Flock will pop open a post editor that features a "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) editor or source code editor.

The browser also has a clipboard manager, called Snippets, so you can just save bits of text, photos, and other goodies and then put them into a blog post later. Just drag and drop objects into the clipboard manager while you're browsing, and then drag and drop them into the post editor when you're ready to post to your blog.

Reading feeds

Speaking of blogging, Flock also makes it easy to keep up with all of your favorite blogs using the built-in My News feed reader. My News is a bit like the Sage plugin for Firefox, but it's better integrated into Flock.

You can add feeds by importing an Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML) file, clicking on the orange RSS button in the URL toolbar, or just clicking "Add a news feed" and giving Flock the URL for the RSS or Atom feed.

Want to blog about something you've read in your news feed? Flock provides a Blog button next to each article -- click that and it will pop open the post editor with full text and objects (including ads, if they're in the feed) to start your blog post with.

Flock also lets you save articles by clicking a star button, and saved posts can be viewed by going to the Saved Articles button at the bottom of the My News interface.

Flock's My News is almost perfect; if they'd add keyboard navigation, that would put it over the top.

Flock search

The Flock search bar differs from Firefox's search capabilities in several ways. First of all, Firefox comes with Google as the default search engine, while the Flock developers have settled on Yahoo! You can change to Google if you like, but you then lose some additional functionality.

When you type in a search term, Flock combs through your history and local favorites, and starts providing results from Yahoo! even before you press Enter. Even if you switch the default search engine from Yahoo! to Google, Flock still provides the top five search results from Yahoo! rather than Google. You can turn off the top five results in the preferences, but Flock is hard-wired to prefer Yahoo!

Flock provides a drop down menu of search options as soon as you enter a search term, so you can choose between searching local favorites, history, or one of the available search engines. Flock comes with Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, Technorati, and a few others, and offers additional search engine plugins that aren't installed by default, such as IMDB.com.

Extensions

When I last reviewed the Flock browser, there weren't any extensions for it. Now the Flock developers have quite a few extensions available, including Adblock, the Google Toolbar, Greasemonkey, and many more.

When I installed the Google Toolbar from the Flock Web site, I received a warning that it wasn't compatible with the browser, but it installed anyway and seems to work just fine.

Just for grins, I downloaded the Google Notebook extension from Google's site and tried to install it in Flock as well. I've found the Notebook extension to be really handy, so I was hoping it would work in Flock. Unfortunately, it refuses to install, saying that it's incompatible with Flock. I can't tell whether it's actually incompatible, or simply is refusing to install because it's not finding the version of Firefox it expects.

I tried a few other extensions, and like Google's extension, no dice. However, there is a pretty good selection of extensions on the Flock site.

What's not to like?

While using Flock, the only thing I really didn't like is that the favorites manager is a bit clunky, but this is likely to be taken care of before Flock 1.0 is released.

Also, though it seems normal now that I'm used to it, it was a while before I realized that the reload button is the "stop" button when Flock is loading a page. It's a bit counterintuitive since most browsers sport two separate buttons.

Overall, Flock looks like it's pretty fast, and it's been stable for the time I've been using it. Flock's set of features are an excellent match for the way I want to use the Web. Download the beta and take it for a test drive -- you might even start using it full-time.

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