Flock – Another Browser for the Tech Community

Flock is a revolutionary approach to consuming the web. It integrates tagging, blogging, and feed aggregation all within the browser itself – no plugins, extensions, or add-ons needed. Built on top of the Mozilla platform (read: Firefox), Flock aimed at making life simpler (which is what Steve Rubel looked for) but missed the mark. Om and others agree – at least for now.

The Flock teams’ ideas are great but even from a power user’s perspective I found a couple of the features unintuitive (e.g., the “Shelf”) and lacking (e.g., “blog editor”). On the other side of the coin, it was missing some of the basics I’d expect in a browser (e.g. their approach to favorites, which amounts to social bookmarking via a synched up del.icio.us account).

Flock’s implementation of favorites reminds me in many ways to how Google pushed in Gmail – “labels” over folders. I have friends today who are using Gmail that still don’t get labels or even realize that they can actually search their inboxes (in fact, I showed someone the latter feature the other day and he was amazed). I’m not referring to tech ignorant grandma and grandpa’s either, these guys and gals are young professionals who are relatively savvy yet just don’t get the power of Gmail’s features. People understood email folders – and people will want a standard approach to bookmarking available in their browser too. I know I do.

Consider the Audience

Even with Firefox’s success it still only puts a small dent in IE’s dominance. The reality is that most users (outside of the blogosphere or techy circles) are not going to take the time to install and figure out how to use a new browser, especially when their operating system comes with its own. That’s probably true even if the alternative is better.

Unfortunately, I’m still forced to use IE because many larger websites do not code or design with Firefox in mind. In order to use billpay with my bank, I have to use IE because when I click “pay” in Firefox nothing happens. Very annoying.

Almost as important, is that similar to the Gmail example there is a learning curve associated with Firefox. I’ve more than done my fair share of “Spread Firefox”. Every computer I hit, I install it and help people “rediscover the web”. Tabs, extensions, and Firefox’s approach to bookmarks (including “Live Bookmarks”) really confuses them at first. Of course, in the end they love it but without some guidance, they’d be lost.

Considering those points (because Flock is built on top of Firefox), now throw in several new concepts – blogging (which many still think is a fun teenager fad), tagging and social bookmarking (which is an entire conversation in itself), and weird words like del.icio.us and Flickr and I can almost guarantee you’ll have the average user check out rather quickly. I gather Richard’s testing of “whether Flock will be suitable for mainstream, non-geek users” will eventually yield similar thoughts.

By all accounts, Flock is not going to be the browser of choice for my sisters, my uncle or his friends, or many of my professional (non-blogosphere) contacts. Flock would have to go back to some of the basics for that to happen but if they did so, they wouldn’t be Flock (the digital divide shows itself again).

Down but Not Out For the Techies

Flock will only get better. They will listen to users. They will hear the feedback and respond. They are doing some great things. They’ve got a great UI. They’ve done well to integrate feed discovery, feed management, and search history. Tab re-ordering is beautiful. That is why I’m not counting it out as the browser for the “Web 2.0″ or the larger tech community and perhaps my browser of choice. Still, don’t count out the Firefox team. After all, they did spark the latest browser revolution.

What I Need to See to Become a Flock User

Traditional (Firefox) Bookmarking Offered – I love the “multiple favorites toolbar” feature but I want to be able to have my typical Firefox bookmark folders up there. For instance, I have a folder with all my bookmarklets – must have. On that note, we should be able to import / export traditional bookmarks and have the option to leave our favorites open in a sidebar while browsing (same with history) – don’t try to fix things that work. If Flock is stuck on tags, I don’t mind the idea of tagging in place of folders but at least make the tag have a drop down folder if placed on the toolbar.

Explain Their Preferred Services – Yahoo! as the default search, social bookmarking via del.icio.us, tagging (in blog editor) via Technorati, photo sharing via Flickr. What about BlinkList or IceRocket (I admit I’m not a photo hound and do not know a Flickr alternative)? Here’s the point – it seems strange to build these advanced features around specific services, especially when they are not the clear winners in the end game (e.g. BlinkList is wowing me in the social bookmarking space). Does this play into Om’s point about the Flock business model?

Clean-up Some Bugs – Under my favorites manager, I can’t delete the tags that come pre-populated – ‘feedback’, ‘flock’, ‘flockstart’ (nor can I delete ones I create). I’d like to see a less buggy blog editor, with the ability to see the source of the markup.

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