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Review: Flock Browser

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It is with some trepidation that I set out to review the developer preview of the Flock browser. It hardly seems fair, does it? After all, the public beta isn’t scheduled to come out for another month. What kind of jerk reviews software that hasn’t even been released yet?

This jerk, apparently.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, Flock is a new open source browser (currently only available as a developer preview) based off of the Mozilla code base, particularly code from Firefox. In fact, with an online converter utility, most Firefox extensions will work on this browser, although there are also quite a few that just will not work due to the fundamental differences between the two programs.

Flock aims to be the Web 2.0 browser, and as such comes with full integration with social web services like Flickr (photo sharing), del.icio.us and Shadows (social bookmarking). It also has Technorati support and a blogging tool that interfaces with Blogger, Typepad or Wordpress blogs. The browser itself resembles a pleasingly themed Firefox, with the the aforementioned tools nicely integrated into the interface. There is a lot to cover here, so I might as well break it down into categories.

Photo Sharing

Flock has Flickr support built right into it, which you access at any time via the topbar. With the photo uploader you can drag and drop files from your computer into the browser, and tag it as you choose before uploading.

You can also use the topbar to search through your photos or others, either by tag search or user name. I actually don’t do much photo-sharing and only reason I created a Flickr account was to test this feature out. I don’t take many photos and don’t spend much time looking at them. Leading me to your Flickr stream is a sure way to bore me to tears. However, this type of service has become insanely popular, and I think that this feature will be a big draw among those users.

Social Bookmarks

Flock supports both del.icio.us and Shadows, both very popular social bookmarking services. For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, social bookmarking is a way for you to store your bookmarks online, which makes them accessible from anywhere and allows you to share them with other people. You can tag your bookmarks in order to create on-the-fly categories for your pages making it easier for you to search. In the anarchy of self-created tags a strange cloud of data begins to form that allow you (as well as other users) to find data you might have missed by performing searches on those tags. del.icio.us is by far the more well known of the two services, although Shadows has the added benefit of allowing you to choose whether or not to share particular bookmarks. Flock can connect with either service, although it is designed to only be set to one. You can switch back and forth but as Flock moves your bookmarks back and forth I have heard this can cause unpredictable results, such as sharing your private Shadow pages publicly on del.icio.us.

I had never used these services previously as it always struck me as a waste of time to constantly be visiting some other website to store my bookmarks or blog subscriptions. Yeah, it is cool to share and the search offers a lot of possibilites, but I want it in my client. Which brings us right back to Flock.

These services are seamlessly integrated into Flock’s bookmarking system. When you want to add a page to your favorites, you click the star button (which you can see in the above photo nestled against the address bar), and you immediately have the option to tag and share the page, enter a comment, add it to one of your aggregated collections or all of the above.

Flock really gets this right. If these services are to be at all practical, they need to be part of the bookmarking process, not an extra step. I accumulated quite a few links online just as I sorted things because it was so easy. Now that I have started, I actually really like those services. I do have mild concerns about privacy, as I have visions of inexperienced users sharing much more than they intended or ever want to, however as this is geared towards the Web 2.0 consumer base, this may be an unfounded concern.

Favorites Manager

Since I’m talking about bookmarks I should mention the Favorites Manager. This is one area where Flock has really irritated me. The favorites manager builds an entire library of all your bookmarks which you can then search through, which works with the whole “search - don’t sort” philosophy, but in the end it just frustrated me. Essentially, if you want to access one of your favorites, you have to open the Favorites Manager and search through the library for page you are looking for. You can access favorites via the topbar, but you need to add it to one of your aggregated collections which you can then assign at will to the topbar. The library itself drove me up the wall. Eventually, I tried to put my favorites into categorized collections, which made it a little easier, but if you have too many favorites in a particular collection, they go off the side of the browser and you have to click an expand button to get to those other links, and occasionally the name of that page is replaced with the feed protocol of that page making it impossible to tell where it links to.

As much fun as it is to switch the topbar around on a whim, it gets irritating pretty fast, and I really hope they address this issue before the public release because I certainly don’t want to have to come up with thirty or so collections to hold all my links in a manageable form.

The other thing is that (just like with tags) an individual bookmark can belong to multiple collections, which actually sounds like a really good idea, but since the collections are what users populate the topbar with, it means even less space for your bookmarks. While the basic premise seems to fit nicely with the Web 2.0 tagging concept, it really just complicates the client application.

I’ve also noticed that occasionally links in my Favorites Manager and topbar will cease to work until I restart Flock. I attribute this to it being a developer preview, however, and I’m sure it will be fixed by the public beta in May.

RSS

Flock recognizes and will correctly interpret a link using the feed tag (e.g. feed:http://blog.andrlik.org/feed/) which is something that is a welcome sight. In fact, if you star a page that has a feed associated with it, the feed will be added to your favorites as well, which is pretty sweet. However, as an RSS reader, Flock just doesn’t work right now. For starters, there is no notification system, so the only way to know if there is new content is to manually check them by going into the Favorites Manager and opening the feed, which will be displayed in a very pretty digest view. However, if I’m clicking multiple feeds just to find out if there is something new, it really isn’t syndication anymore. I might as well just go to the site. If I don’t want to go to each feed individually, Flock can take an entire collection and aggregate all of the feeds within it into one digest view very similar to what Bloglines does, which is very nice, but still short of actual notification of new content.

In addition, the updating of feeds is exceptionally buggy. I would find updates on sites hours before it showed up in my Flock feeds, even after I manually refreshed them.

From what I’ve been able to gather, this is a development priority for the folks at Flock, and if it isn’t it needs to be. You can’t spell Web 2.0 without RSS… or something like that.

Blogging

This is actually the feature that drew me to checking out Flock, as I had heard quite a bit about the integrated blogging features. One really slick little feature is the Shelf. The Shelf is yet another topbar where you can add notes or drag links into in order to remember and use for a blog entry later.

This is a rather neat idea and it is very smoothly integrated into the interface. Then again, while it is certainly visually appealing, I’m not sure I like it as much as the Scrapbook extension for Firefox, which will take notes, capture pages, and then allow you to highlight lines or annotate those pages for your reference later. It’s definitely a nice feature to have native to the browser though.

The blog editor itself is a bit of a disappointment. For a browser so geared towards blogging, it was disappointing to see that the blog editor did not support trackbacks, which I really feel is a must for any serious blogger. The WYSIWYG editor was okay, although sometimes it would generate odd HTML which would look strange in my posts. This isn’t really a large problem because I prefer to compose my entries in source view anyway, but the lack of trackbacks and the fact that it sorts Wordpress categories based on their database id number rather than in alphabetical order was a little irritating. Also, I don’t like the fact that the category selector is a multiple-select box, which requires a lot of Ctrl-clicking. I really prefer the way Performancing for Firefox works, using checkboxes for category selection (like it is natively in Wordpress). Performancing also does trackbacks, sorts categories alphabetically, uploads images via FTP and even lets me view my Metrics stats.

Another thing that bothers me about the Flock blogging tool is that when you save drafts, they are stored inside of your Flock profile on your local hard drive. This seems a little strange to me, as every blog server application I am aware of supports draft posts. It would seem to make more sense that when you click the save button that it would be published as a draft (like PFF does it), that way you can pick it up again whenever you want from any computer. The other problem with this approach is that if you delete or edit posts via another computer or application, Flock still uses its original saved copy in the profile, which means that unless you only blog or administer your blog from Flock, things can get a little ugly.

Flock has made a smart move and incorporated spell-check into the browser itself, utilizing the Spellbound extension for Mozilla and Firefox. This is a very nice feature which I believe is also planned for Firefox 2.0 as well. However, Flock doesn’t have a way to activate Spellbound’s spell-check while you type feature, which I love using in Firefox. Since it is compiled into the browser as opposed to being an extension, the user doesn’t have access to activate that feature if it even exists in their version. I did check about:config and was unable to find a setting to activate it, so I suspect it just is not available in Flock.

Unfortunately, Flock also has a problem with interface responsiveness at times (see the bit about the randomly crippled favorites above), which means that text inputed from the keyboard doesn’t always show up immediately on the screen and is sometimes misinterpreted causing quite a bit of frustration when writing a post or email via the browser. I have no idea if this is a common experience for Flock users during this developer preview or not, but it only seems to occur when I am using Flock.

Progress

I did download one of the nightly test builds to see if any of these bugs or issues have been addressed and they seem to be just as prevalent. Hopefully, they will be resolved by the May release.

Controversy

It is worth mentioning that there has been some friction in the community of Mozilla users (although from what I have heard the Firefox and Flock teams are very supportive of each other) regarding Flock’s existence. It seems that there are a lot of people who feel that the Flock project should have been limited to developing extensions for Firefox, rather than building an entirely new browser separate from Mozilla and earning their own search revenue. There has been a lot of name-calling and accusations of “ripping off” Firefox. This seems absurd to me.

The point of open-source is that the code is free to be used and modified within the confines of its license, which allows for greater innovation and allows new products to be developed in a community of cooperation in order to meet user needs. Flock is a new browser, yes. However, it is a browser that is targeted to a very specific market of Internet users, whereas Firefox is designed for general purpose use. Flock is a browser designed to meet the needs of bloggers right out of the box with no additional extensions; Firefox is set up to be a slick no-frills browser that is infinitely extensible. While I will agree that the Flock team’s claim that Flock is not a fork of the Mozilla code is somewhat ridiculous, I also think it is silly that people are upset about its creation. It’s called innovation, folks.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Flock is a browser with a lot of promise, and I really like where it is going. That being said, this preview is pretty buggy, and the features that were most important to me were disappointing (blogging) or in some cases crippled (RSS). At this point I think I get much more value and enjoyment out of my Firefox extensions, and they work a lot better for blogging. The only thing I really wish is that Firefox integrated their bookmark system with web services as it is in Flock. Although, maybe that code will find its way into a future version of Firefox. After all, that’s the beauty of open source.

I’ll be watching closely as Flock develops and I look forward to checking it out again once it gets closer to being a finished product. For now, though, I think I’ll stick with Firefox.

Tried the Flock browser? Agree/Disagree? Think I’m full of it? Leave a comment!