Flock has released a preview of a major update to its social web browser. As I noted in a recent post where I did a Q&A with Flock's CEO, Shawn Hardwin, when Flock first launched, timed perfectly to coincide with a wave of web 2.0 hype, it seemed like a fresh and bold attempt to make a web browser that truly embraced the 'social web'. The browser wasn't a passive application designed for reading web pages, but instead could 'write' to the web with support for emerging social web services through built-in a blog editor, drag 'n' drop access and publishing of photos on Flickr (and later Photobucket), and integration with social bookmarking service, Delicious. But then things went astray.
...it would be fair to say that for many, Flock's delivery hasn't matched the hype (perhaps a victim of its initial PR success). Critics argue that most of Flock's functionality can be achieved through various Firefox extensions — though I've yet to find an RSS plugin that comes close to Flock — and to make matters worse, Mozilla is currently prototyping its own built-in social features (see 'Firefox exploring social networking features).
However, with version 0.9 comes a major UI redesign, and some significant new functionality, as well as a foundation built on top of the latest Firefox 2 codebase. Here are some of my favorite enhancements.
The look 'n' feel of flock remains as slick as ever, and is possibly the nicest 'skin' for a browser out there. But this isn't style over content and the UI's most significant overhaul is its emphasis on improving discoverability. By this I mean that many of Flock's features were previously quite hard to discover, and getting the browser to sync and work with your online accounts for the services it supports, meant already knowing quite a lot about how Flock works. Perhaps hoping to break out beyond the web 2.0 early adopter crowd (many of which will have abandoned Flock for the 'roll your own' flexibility of Firefox), pop-up help dialog boxes are offered every time you browse a service that's supported or have the option to configure the browser's social features. So for example, if you're on YouTube, you're prompted that if you log-in, you can have your YouTube stream added to Flock's media bar, and like-wise, have a friend's YouTube channel added too. This is also true with regards to regular RSS feeds. Obviously, you have the option to not be prompted again in the future, but it's really helpful -- and feels surprisingly interactive -- to have a clearly written and fairly non-obtrusive walk-through on the browser's features, as you actually surf the social web.
As already mentioned, the Media Bar (previously, the Photo Bar) now supports video: from YouTube and Truveo. The way it works is you can add your own accounts for the services supported (which also includes photo sites Flickr and Photobucket), as well as add friends' streams you wish to track and be alerted of updates. Think of it as a special RSS reader for media.
Whilst this isn't a new feature, I've always been a fan of Flock's built-in RSS reader. However, despites it's strong UI -- with the ability to create folders, and switch between headline-only, summary, and full feeeds: in both single and two column view -- it was at times painfully slow. This appears to have been fixed and it felt a lot more snappy.
Again, not a new feature but one that has been improved greatly and also been brought more to the front, is Flock's clip-board. What this enables you to do is drag any text, link or image from a webpage, and store it into a multiple clip-board (including support for folders). Then when you're writing a blog entry you can drag 'n' drop any of your clippings directly into your post. This also applies when leaving comments on another blog. It's a very useful feature, especially for blogging when you're often restling between sources as you riff off somebody else's article or post.
My World acts like a kind of pre-configured start-page -- agregating all of the social web activity that Flock is tracking, such as when your friends have new photos and videos and when you have new feeds.
There's no doubt that Flock's 0.9 update is quite an overhaul -- with lots of tiny details that are designed to make powerful features more easily accessed, as well as try to broaden the browser's appeal. And overall, the team have done a great job in this respect. However, where the efforts full short, are in the still limited number of services supported. On the upside, Flock can be used as a blog editor for almost all of the popular platforms, but in terms of interacting directly with various social web services and tracking social media, I was hoping for more. Where's support for Twitter or Facebook alerts for example? I can't imagine the engineering resources needed would be too much to support these two sites, or any of the social web services that have APIs. This is where Firefox add-ons shine in comparison. Having said that, many Firefox add-ons will work with Flock 0.9, so I guess it could be the best of both worlds.
Note: I've barely touched the surface with regards to the very detailed improvements to Flock. For a complete guide to what's changed, check out Flock's site.