By Rob Hof Web browsers don't look much different than they did a decade ago, when Netscape Communications's initial stock offering catapulted software for navigating the Web into the public eye. You click on a site, look around, watch or listen to something, click somewhere else -- all by your lonesome self. Now, an upstart called Flock aims to change all that.
On Oct. 5, the Palo Alto-based startup takes the wraps off what it's calling a "social browser." Unlike plain-vanilla browsers such as Microsoft's (MSFT) Internet Explorer, Flock's browser is built specifically for a new, emerging generation of Web users, one that isn't satisfied passively browsing media online.
Flock hopes to turn the browser into a dashboard for collaborating, blogging, sharing photos, reveling in a raft of other group activities that have recently caught fire online (see BW, 9/26/05, "It's a Whole New Web").
"INCUMBENTS ARE VULNERABLE." "The Web is not just a library of documents, but a stream of events and people," says Flock co-founder and Chief Executive Bart Decrem. "And people are spending a lot more time sharing on the Web."
Flock is also the latest and most ambitious example of a surprising renaissance in browser innovation. Less than a year after its first ready-for-prime-time release, the Mozilla Firefox browser -- which Decrem and some of his engineers helped create and popularize before starting Flock last spring -- has stolen nearly 10% of the market from leader Microsoft.
Another browser, Opera, has also gained, especially in Europe. "The incumbents are vulnerable," says David Cowan, general partner with Bessemer Venture Partners, Flock's lead investor. "Today, those are the juiciest targets."
They're also the most powerful competitors. In response to competition from Firefox, Microsoft has turned up the firepower in its own browser, adding improved security in recent releases and planning more features in a new browser in coming months.
BLOGGERS' BOON. Decrem concedes Flock has its work cut out for it -- especially since he's hardly aiming low. He hopes to have 100 million users within five years. "There's not too many people crazy enough to do a browser," he notes with a grin.
The Flock browser, which is expected to be released to the public in test form in about two weeks, does everything a regular browser does, but with several important additions.
For one, it makes blogging a snap by eliminating the need to do arcane coding in order to post, change fonts or add photos. Right click the mouse on a Web page, and a blogging wizard comes up that automatically creates links, citations, and quotes that are ready to insert into a blog. A horizontal bar on the browser also can load photos from the photo-sharing site Flickr, so they can be simply dragged and dropped into the blog post.
HANDY HISTORY. Moreover, Flock makes it easy to create online bookmarks for Web sites. Visit a Web site and click a "+" button on one of the browser's toolbars, and that site is saved to a personalized list on the social bookmarks Web site http://del.icio.us./.
Those bookmarks can be tagged with useful descriptions and shared with others. Flock also lets people create watchlists of people whose bookmarks they like and form groups with people who link to particular tags. Flock also keeps a history of every Web page a user visits, so they can be found easily later.
Even in raw test mode, Flock and its blogging tools in particular are drawing rave reviews from tech-savvy users. "Pure magic," says J. Michael Arrington, general partner at Archimedes Ventures, who co-writes the blog TechCrunch. "It's a beautiful application, and they're a bunch of smart guys." Even Robert Scoble, Microsoft's most famous blogger, has called the Flock browser "awesome."
PERSONAL TOUCH. The most innovative thing about Flock is that it's trying to do away with the notion of "browsing." Co-founder and Marketing Vice-President Geoffrey Arone says the term is an increasingly irrelevant description of what people do online. Essentially, Flock's software is intended to serve less as a window into static Web content than as a customizable conduit for participatory Web services, from Flickr to del.icio.us to the collaborative online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
It's not an entirely new idea. Tech-savvy folks can customize their Web experience with a number of new tools. Firefox, and now Internet Explorer, for instance, allow people to add "extensions" to their browser. They can, say, add a new search-engine box to their browsers, even alter the appearance and features of individual Web sites. Possible additions include blocking ads or filling in personal account information.
But Cowan notes that not everyone wants to trick out their Web browser. "Most people just want to drive their car off the lot," he says. So Flock's aim is to create software that makes it dead-easy for regular Web users to customize an experience with just a few clicks. The Flock software will be offered free, both to the general public and to other Web developers in open-source form, so they can add and contribute their own tweaks.
REDMOND'S RESPONSE. So how will it generate sales? Decrem expects to make money from running Google ads, as well as getting so-called affiliate fees for referring users to commercial sites such as Amazon.com (AMZN). Moreover, he envisions getting money from other Web services, such as blogging or photo-sharing services, that might pay Flock for sign-ups sent their way from the Flock software.
At least for a while, that may be enough to sustain 12 guys and and a dog or two in a converted garage in Palo Alto, Calif. But getting traction among millions of Web users will be the tough part, even if the software ultimately works as well as it demos. After all, Microsoft's browser still commands 90% of browser use, and it's not standing still.
A test version of a new Internet Explorer, scheduled to be released to the general public soon, includes streamlined ways to find and read so-called RSS feeds and integrate them into calendar and e-mail programs. "We think these features will take the browser to the next level," says Gary Schare, Microsoft's director of product management for Internet Explorer.
"THE COMMON GOOD." What's more, the folks at Mozilla, the newly for-profit producer of Firefox, are still cranking away at making their software the browser of choice. Indeed, while Mozilla President Mitchell Baker welcomes browser innovation on top of Firefox, she questions whether an entirely new browser is the right way to go. Better, she contends, to create simple, targeted extensions that individual browser users can choose to add to Firefox. "It keeps the energy focused on the common good," adds Mike Shaver, Mozilla's technology strategist.
Flock is making a heady gamble -- one that conjures up ghosts of Internet bubble past. Flock's ancestor, Netscape, gave away free browsers, too. Despite being acquired by America Online for $4 billion, it was widely viewed as having gotten crushed by Microsoft. But if Flock can use its early buzz to shepherd the online masses toward its software, it may not be long before we click goodbye to the old Web browser.
Hof is BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau manager