Flock 2.5 Delivers the Promise of Social Media on the Web

As you spend more-and-more of your time on the Internet and connecting with others, Flock can help to streamline repetitive social activities.

It’s been a long time in coming, but with the 2.5 release, the Flock folks have pulled all of the pieces together to deliver a cohesive “Social Web Browser.” The 2.5 release of Flock, coupled with the increasing mainstream interest in social media, might just be enough to make Flock more than a niche browser for Web 2.0 junkies.

What is Flock?

Flock is a fork of Firefox aimed at streamlining the “social media” experience on the Web. Flock adds a number of features to make it easier to share media, post to microblogs, use Webmail, and generally make the most of the social Web while browsing.

There’s a simple test to see if you should bother giving Flock a shot: If you spend more than 25% of your Web time using Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, GMail, a blog, and other “social media” Web sites — you’re likely to be a happy Flocker. If you’re an infrequent user of social media services, there’s really no reason to bother.

Discovering Flock

To get the latest Flock, head to Flock’s Web site and grab the package for your OS. Linux users get a bzip-compressed tarball. Just uncompress the tarball (tar -jxvf flock-version.bz2) and cd to the “flock” directory. To start up, run ./flock-bin.

On first run, Flock will ask if you want to import information from Firefox or other browsers. The import seems to work flawlessly — it sucked in all of my bookmarks and other profile information in about a minute and I was off to the races.

The next stage is getting Flock configured to access all the social media sites you use on a regular basis. Flock supports more than 20 online services, including YouTube, GMail, Blogging, WordPress.com, Delicious, Twitter, LiveJournal, Xanga, Typepad, and Flickr.

By “support,” we’re not talking about just displaying the sites — Flock actually integrates with the sites to provide a slicker experience.

For example, Flock sports a photo uploader as part of the browser. Just hit Ctrl-Shift-U, and you’ll get the Photo Uploader. Just drag and drop photos from your computer into the uploader, add tags and comments, and then upload them to your favorite photo sharing service. Flock supports Photobucket, Picasa, TinyPic, and Facebook using the uploader. For some reason, Flock seems to have dropped Flick support with this feature, but if you’re logged into Flicker the same shortcut will take you directly to the Flickr upload page.

If you spend a lot of time using Twitter or updating your Facebook wall, you don’t need to browse to those sites any more just to post an update. Once you’ve set up your Facebook and/or Twitter account with Flock, you can open the “People” sidebar and see all of your conversations right there — including @replies and direct messages.

For longer blogs, Flock includes three features that make it a killer app for blogging. First, Flock supports most major blogging platforms — including WordPress, TypePad, Blogger, and LiveJournal. If you’re using one of those platforms, or another platform that supports the API, you can publish directly to your blog from Flock without having to make use of a Web-based interface for composing posts or a separate editor. (It seems silly, but I still know a number of people who use Word or OpenOffice.org to write drafts of their blog posts.)

How do you publish to blogs directly? Using Flock’s built-in Blog Editor. You can open the blog editor and start composing a new post from a blank page, or you can simply highlight text or hover over a picture and right-click “blog this” — and Flock will send it to the Blog Editor and start a new post for you, with a link to the originating site.

The blog editor is a bit genericized, so you may not have access to every feature you’ll find in the Web-based editors (for instance, WordPress image positioning features and the “more” tag) but it’s a great time saver for basic blogging. It also allows you to save drafts and publish later, which can be handy when working on longer posts.

Last, but not least, Flock also comes with a Web clipboard feature — which is pretty much what it sounds like. If you’re collecting clips, pictures, or whatnot for a future blog post, just highlight the info you’d like to save and send it to the Web clipboard. When you’re creating a new post, you can snarf clips from the clipboard into the Web editor, and save a lot of time hunting up information.

Flock also has excellent built-in RSS reader. Typically, I use Google Reader, so I exported a list of my feeds and imported them to Flock. It imported them flawlessly — even keeping the folder organization I had set up with Google Reader. Oddly, though, Flock doesn’t support the same kind of integration with other aggregating services like Bloglines, Google Reader, or My Yahoo that Firefox does. Why the Flockers decided to rip this out is unclear.

The Flipside of Flock

In general, Flock does an excellent — but not perfect — job of integrating social media services with the browser, so it’s a more-or-less seamless experience.

As much as I like Flock, it has a few flaws and areas where it needs to catch up with Firefox. Hands down, the number one reason Firefox is my browser of choice is its insanely great ecosystem of add-ons. Luckily, some Firefox add-ons will run in Flock. Unluckily, some Firefox add-ons are likely to crash Flock even though they do install and work.

Case in point is one of my favorite extensions: Xmarks. While you can install and use Xmarks with Flock 2.5, it winds up being a bit on the crashy side. Unfortunately, it’s up to extension owners to iron out issues with the extensions.

Many extensions should work OK with Flock, but those (like Xmarks) that touch on bookmarks or other things that have been modified by Flock may have issues. The Flock site does have a handful of add-ons customized for Flock, but we’re talking less than a dozen out of the hundreds of add-ons available for Firefox.

The most recent version of Flock doesn’t reflect the most recent Firefox development. The new privacy features, for example, that are coming in Firefox 3.5 aren’t present in Flock. So if you’re interested in staying up to speed with the very most recent features of Firefox, you’re going to be a bit disappointed with Flock.

The translations also lag a bit behind. The Flock download page lists quite a few languages — but only the only 2.5 download available is in English. Many of the localized versions of Flock are still at 2.0.3, and some haven’t made it past the 1.2.6 release of Flock.

Finally, Flock’s performance is not quite up to snuff compared with Firefox. Using Flock for daily browsing is tolerable on a standard machine (a Lenovo ThinkPad T61 with 3GB of RAM and a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo running openSUSE 11.1) but it has some noticable lag compared to Firefox.

Time to Take Flock Seriously?

I’ve been following Flock for many years, and this release is its most solid yet. It has a few glitches and areas where it could be improved, but overall it’s solid enough that I’m using it daily.

But what’s really interesting about Flock isn’t really Flock itself — it’s the fact that it leverages sites that have grown increasingly popular. When Flock pre-1.0 releases started hitting the Web in 2005, there wasn’t all that much appeal to mainstream users and the browser was still very rough around the edges.

Microblogging wasn’t even a consideration when the first alphas of Flock appeared in 2005. Twitter wasn’t on the scene until 2006. Fast forward to 2009, when even Oprah is on Twitter and Facebook is rampantly popular, and Flock might just be ready to break into the mainstream.

The only thing left is for the Flock folks to figure out a business model to go along with all this browsery goodness.

But, this is just my opinion. If you’re interested in Flock, try it out and see if it’s your cup of tea. You can also check out the conversation on Twitter with @flocker to see some of the comments and complaints about Flock being made in real time.

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