Flock redux

Steve Hamm

Last October, the folks at Flock broke their silence and revealed their plans for a new “social browser” designed for collaborating, sharing photos, and blogging. The Flock beta was supposed to come out a couple of weeks later. It didn’t. Some early feedback from private beta users revealed to Flock’s designers that they had some usability work to do before it went public.

Well, flock is back. The company was to unveil its new Web site today and launch the long-awaited public beta. (I had to go home for dinner before it was posted, but expect it happened as planned)I haven’t had a chance to play with the browser yet, but I got a demo from co-founder and Chief Executive Bart Decrem via WebEx yesterday. He showed off search, photo sharing, and news features that seem sure to make the software popular among the Myspace crowd.

First, a bit of background on Flock. The founders were formerly engineers and marketers at Mozilla.org, and contributed to the Firefox browser before they left a year ago to start their own company. (Flock is built on top of the Mozilla core) The new browser runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Decrem seems slightly embarrassed by the seven-month delay, but had a disarmingly sincere explanation. The earlier version "wasn't ready for consumers," he told me. "In our young eagerness we may have overstated a bit." Why can't traditional software makers be as honest when they miss a launch deadline? Flock hopes to have a finished version out by the end of the year.

After last fall's stumble, the company hired usability experts and focused in on three features that take Flock way beyond the capabilities of conventional browsers.

--The search box, located in the upper right hand corner of the screen, has Yahoo! Search as the default, but a user can easily replace it with Google, Wikipedia, or any other search service. They're listed on a menu that drops down as soon as you start typing into the bar. The menu is a cool thing. After you have typed in your keywords and before you hit enter, it pulls up the top five responses from Yahoo, the top items in your browser's local history, and links to blogs you follow. In this way, you can see results of a search without having a search page cover what you're doing on your machine.

--Photos. This feature triangulates Flock with the social networking sites and some of the popular photo sharing sites, including Flickr and Photobucket. When a youngster is on somebody else's page on Myspace and he or she clicks on a photo imported from Photobucket (or Flickr), a "photo stream" opens up in the browser underneath the toolbar showing postage-stamp-size versions of all of the photos that person has posted on the photo-sharing site. To keep track of people with good photos, you can create a "photo friends" list. When you see a photo stream you like, you just click on a gold star icon on othe browser to add the person to your friends list. An icon lights up on the browser whenever somebody on your list posts a new photo. There's also a handy tool in the browser for cropping and resizing photos and another for quickly uploading large quantities of them to photo-sharing sites.

--The news feature, Front Page, makes it easy to aggregate RSS news feeds in one convenient spot. The browser comes pre-loaded with a selection of sites. A wizard helps you customize. Then, whenever you're on a news Web site that you like, you just click a "subscribe" button and it's added to Front Page.

Flock also has nifty features for blogging and bookmarks.

The company's partnerships could help the browser take off fast. There's one with del.iciou.us for synchronizing your bookmarks on all of your computers, and marketing placements with Myspace, Flickr, and LiveJournal. And more to come.

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