Flock: A new sort of browser

Steve Hamm

The uptake on Mozilla Foundation's Firefox open-source browser seems to be slowing, but a new way of thinking about the Net may give the alternatives to Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer new momentum. Just now debuting on the Web scene is a newfangled browser design, Flock, from Flock Inc., an 8-person startup located in--what else?--a garage across from the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto. This piece of software is based on Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine, which is also the foundation for Firefox, but it takes browsing deep into the realm of social networking. The target user: bloggers.

The goal of the Mozilla Foundation is to preserve choice and let innovations flourish on the Web, and Flock certainly takes it up on the offer. And no wonder. One of the co-founders, Bart Decrem, worked for Mozilla.org for 18 months and did much of the branding and marketing for Firefox. "We see ourselves as a sort of R&D department for Mozilla, exploring new things." Flock is open-source as well, so any of its innovations can be pulled into Firefox or other projects.

The initial Flock, which will go into public beta in mid-October, is designed from the ground up as a "social browser" for what its inventors call the "two-way" Web. It offers features designed to make it easier to blog, tag content, and share photographs. When a user lands on a Web page that she or he finds interesting, and wants to post about it on their blog, they simply right click on their mouse, which pulls up a blogging wizard. In the process, the software automatically adds citations and links. The browser also has an RSS feed built in. Other handy features: an open-source search engine that automatically indexes every Web site a user visits for easy rediscovery, and the ability to easily share bookmarks with friends.

The Flock folks are actively reaching out to engage developers and browser users in helping them to refine their software. The beta is very rough, but more polished version is due out before the end of the year. The idea was to get something into circulation that people can knock around. "You put something out and iterate. You try again. It's more like a conversational process, not like traditional software development," says Decrem.

Flock hasn't figured out its business model yet. It won't sell advertising, but hopes to gather fees for referrals to other Web sites or e-commerce venues.

The main hurdle is getting Flock to be used by millions of people. There are 10 million bloggers in action now. So that's not a bad market opportunity. If they begin to adopt Flock, you could see a bit of a snowball effect. "We're giving the bloggers the tools they need to talk about us," says Decrem.

I'm a fan of choice, innovation, and democraticizing computing, so I say: Power to the Flock.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.