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Flock review

February 04, 2006 ・ Blog

icon 031 It was good to write a piece for icon that was about developments on the web – especially as it helped clarify some of my own thoughts about all this web 2.0 stuff. Though I think its barking up the wrong tree, I really do respect the dedication, talent and thought that has gone into Flock. If rumours are true, it’s currently in the process of a rethink, maybe transforming it into a set of extensions for Firefox. At the least, it seems to me that as a browser it stands as one of those important mistakes that helps make sense of new technologies.

Participatory, collectivist, open, reactive, amateur: Web 2.0 is here. Apparently.

Web 2.0 is the latest internet buzzword. It refers to a range of subtle, powerful and clever tools and websites that have emerged over the past couple of years, such as blogs and RSS (“really simple syndication”) feeds, photo-sharing at Flickr.com, weblink-sharing at del.icio.us, music-sharing at last.fm and the collaboratively-written encyclopedia Wikipedia. These are characterised by a focus not on directly making money, as did the dot-com start-ups of the 1990s, but on users, providing them with useful tools for meeting like-minded people or organising their digital lives.

All this excitement has caused a group of developers to build Flock, a free web browser that aims to seamlessly integrate access to some of these services into its interface. It’s based on the open-source Mozilla Firefox browser, so shares many of its features – but at the moment, Flock is unfinished and in public testing. Visually, it’s fairly polished, with lustrous Apple-style glossy buttons and bevelled edges, although its functionality has a lot of rough edges.

The most significant feature is the bookmarking system, which synchronises with your del.icio.us account. Del.icio.us is a site on which you can record and share links to pages. Flock allows you to make new del.icio.us links by simply clicking a button next to the address bar, which is very easy, but adding descriptions and keywords is a lot more awkward – I found myself turning to use the del.icio.us website itself, sadly. Worse, the system actually makes it harder to find my everyday links, such as The Guardian’s homepage, by putting them with all my others and requiring me to sort by keywords.

Flock also leaps into blogging with a blog editor. It’s very bare bones – you can’t categorise your posts, for instance – but it works smoothly and integrates very well with Flock’s Shelf feature, a handy window into which you can drag bits of text, pictures and links before pulling them into your blog entries. Quite why you can’t also drag these elements back into the main browser for viewing isn’t clear.

The Flickr pictures function is simply a tickertape of images at the top of the window with no ability to browse freely yet, unless you know the username of the person whose photos you want to view. And the RSS feed reader is much more difficult than many others available.

Of course, Flock is still under development. More features will be added and it will be made a lot smoother to use. But its premise of bringing together Web 2.0 tools such as del.icio.us and Flickr under a single interface seems counter to their very premises of openness and adaptability. The individual websites Flock references are easier to use and have richer capabilities than Flock can hope to tap into without becoming a bloated beast of a program. And they’re constantly evolving – how can a fixed, static platform keep up with such mobility?

If Web 2.0 is about freedom and multiplicity, Flock is about consistency and union. And in that, it has interpreted the hype wrong.