Technology

In Browsers, Flock May Lead the Flock


0407_flock
Editor's Rating: star rating

The new service still has hurdles to overcome, but after two weeks this reviewer is already a convert

Why would anyone want another Web browser? And why would anyone want to try to build a business around building one?

That was my reaction to first hearing about Flock, which bills itself as a "social" browser, borrowing the favorite Internet adjective of the day. So what does that mean? Essentially, it's a regular Internet browser, but with added features for heavy users of social networking services like Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

But is the current social networking craze—dare I call it a fad?—enough to support the existence of another distinct Web browser? Microsoft's (MSFT) Internet Explorer is still the dominant browser on the company's Windows computer platform, used by three-quarters of all Web surfers, according to research firm Net Applications. The open-source Firefox browser accounts for about 18% of users, while Norway's Opera and Apple's (AAPL) Safari and assorted others make up the remaining 7%.

You can count me among that Firefox-loving 18%. I've been using it happily since it was known by another name, Firebird, early in its development. Its flexibility and ability to support scores of plug-ins and extensions won me over early, and I prefer it whether I'm using a Windows PC or a Mac.

Fired Up

If you, too, are among the growing Firefox-loving minority, you'll be interested to know that Flock (available free of charge in Windows, Mac, and Linux versions at www.flock.com) won't test your loyalty. It's actually built on top of Firefox, and in most cases will support your favorite Firefox software plug-ins and extensions as readily as Firefox itself.

What's different from Firefox is Flock's ability to work in harmony not only with sites like Facebook and Twitter, but also photo- and video-sharing sites like Flickr from Yahoo! (YHOO), Picasa from Google (GOOG), and YouTube.

The first time you sign in to Facebook within the Flock browser, you'll get a message saying that "Facebook plugs right into Flock." Click "Remember this account," and a mini Facebook page appears down the left side of the window. The next time you launch Flock, you'll see a button that can take you directly to Facebook's sign-in.

The integration doesn't stop there. Once you're logged in, the far left side of your browser window becomes a mini-Facebook feed. The one-line status updates from your friends start to stream in as they're updated, complete with pictures, even as you surf to other sites in the main window. You can also write and receive Facebook messages, "poke" your friends, add friends, and all the other basic Facebook functions from within this narrow window. The same thing happens when you first sign in to Twitter, YouTube, and several other popular services, all of which can be combined into a single view in that side window.

If sharing photos with friends is a big part of what you like to do on the Web, Flock also features a "media bar" that floats across the top or bottom of your browser window. It can display a constantly changing stream of photos from your Facebook and Flickr friends, or newly uploaded video clips from those you follow on YouTube or Truveo (TWX). You can also search any of these sites directly from a search field embedded here.

Instant-Message Support Is Lacking

Flock offers similar built-in support for blogging and reading RSS feeds as well. You can write new posts within Flock for many blogging services, as well as read numerous RSS feeds for your favorite blogs and news sites in yet another iteration of that left-hand sidebar.

At first, however, all of this was a confusing mess. I'm accustomed to simpler browsers that do one thing well: display the Web site one window at a time. It took some time to figure out all the unfamiliar buttons.

There are other shortcomings: The list of supported sites and services needs to be expanded. Flock doesn't support MySpace (NWS) or Bebo, for instance. Nor does it readily support any of the major instant-messaging platforms, which is, to me, a major oversight. I'd also be interested in compatibility with Internet calling services like Skype (EBAY). And in terms of e-mail, Flock offers integration only with Yahoo Web Mail and Google's Gmail.

Yet after two weeks of using Flock, I think I'm a convert. I've found myself launching it in favor of plain old Firefox both at the office and at home. Having all the corners of the Web that I frequent daily within closer reach made my overall Web experience more enjoyable. Whether or not it makes me more productive is yet to be seen.

As the Web evolves from its one-way, "search and retrieve" paradigm into a medium that's more like an unending conversation, browser software will have to evolve with it. Flock is showing the way.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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