Q&A: Flock CEO Shawn Hardin

Flock -- the social web browser -- was launched in late 2005 amid a snowball of publicity and much promise, but to many it's yet to match the hype. Here's my Q&A with CEO Shawn Hardwin.

Flock, the social web browser

Flock -- the social web browser -- was launched in late 2005 amid a snowball of publicity and much promise (see this early TechCrunch review). Although built on top of Mozilla's code base, Flock was pitched as a new kind of browser that fully embraced the emerging 'social web' by including functionality such as a blog editor, drag 'n' drop access to photos on Flickr (and later Photobucket), integration with social bookmarking service, Delicious, as well as a very elegant RSS reader.

However, 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').

Curious as to where Flock is at, and what we might expect in the future, I got the chance to do a brief Q&A (via email) with CEO Shawn Hardwin.

Why do we need a 'social web' browser, when any browser that supports open standards can act as an interface to the social web?

That’s a great one to start with Steve, because this gets at the very essence of what Flock is all about. If you look at the life of the Internet and how people use it, from its mass adoption to now, behavior has really changed. The concept of 'browsing' the internet doesn’t really exist anymore – people don’t look at the internet in a static fashion; they help create it, and they really participate and interact with it.

Over time the social scene has changed, and the way people use the internet has altered in that span of time, and we’ve learned a lot about what’s important to users. Where other browsers have changed incrementally over the past 10 years, Flock is the first true evolution of the browser built for the way people are using social and web based applications and the participatory web.

The features are already built in – there is no downloading widgets or piecing together of features to create the social web experience that Flock currently offers - and that differs from other browsers.

For Flock – our focus is on the convenience and support we can offer through integration and providing capabilities that span our users entire connected life (via the unique position of the browser). Of course, Flock is also a platform and we fully support our users’ interest to customize through the use of extensions, but our product commitment is to be the all-in-one solution for a significant market that integrates and supports high value services and high usage behaviors.

What would you say to people who have been disappointed with Flock's progress?

I share in the frustration some people have about how long it has been since Flock did its last significant release.

We are currently focused on upgrading our capability to release on a regular cycle throughout the year. Flock is challenged to get new and innovative work done while also building an experience that’s usable, dependable and fun. Integrating social media tools, services and features in a way that’s high performance, reliable, stable, easy to discover, and easy to explain to someone is the opportunity we are focused on. Our team thrives on these challenges, and we are making great strides each day.

I joined Flock in November of 2006 and we've hit all our internal deadlines so far this year and are tracking to successfully premiere several new product releases and upgrades in 2007.

Outside of the 'early adopter' / web 2.0 crowd, who do you envisage using Flock?

Flock’s current beta users are a mix of early adopters and technology enthusiasts, as well as "mortals" who are looking for a more dynamic and social web experience.

Flock is not targeted at the entire market, but at the average active internet user who is engaged on social computing and social media activities. In this regard, Flock is focused on the active, early majority market opportunity and has identified a marketplace of 50MM+ users for whom Flock can simplify and enhance their everyday online experience.

Discoverability is huge for us, and we’ve made a lot of improvements to the product that help guide people through how they can get the most out of it from the get go. For example, we’ll help show you how to use our media bar to see all the latest and greatest YouTube videos, how to keep track of your friends, how to set up your RSS reader, how to blog anything they see, etc.

In lots of cases, by building social web functionality inside of the browser, you negate the need for the user to actually visit the service's own web site -- which may impact on the site's page views and related ad-revenue. Moving forward, will this limit what services you are able to partner with or integrate?

We support and have integrated with many of the major interactive web services, including MySpace, Photobucket, YouTube, Yahoo (Flickr and Del.icio.us), LiveJournal, FaceBook, and many more.  We’re also engaged in distribution partnerships with several services and have additional conversations ongoing that will introduce the benefits of Flock to many new users.

Our partners are companies that work directly with the Flock browser to help simplify and enable the web for the end user. It is our goal to power and benefit other social media businesses by integrating them within the browser.

Flock is about simplifying, enriching and deepening user engagement and this is important and complementary to most web services. For example, Flock’s notifications pull users back into the web service experiences they value by helping users to visit the site when they know there is something of interest specifically for them.

What's your reaction to the announcement that Mozilla is playing with adding its own social web features?

Flock shares with Mozilla a passion to innovate and provide choice to online users around the globe. Mozilla's interest in this specific area is an enormous validation of the premise upon which Flock is based: that there are today massive opportunities to truly innovate the browser for a very large market and to support, simplify and enhance emergent online behavior like social computing and social media. 

This is what Flock has been innovating around and working on for more than two years -- this is why Flock exists! Online social activity is not just a fad that will come and go but rather a dynamic and interactive platform. As with any consumer-facing startup, we want to make sure that we can deliver a product worthy of a passionate and growing user base, and we’re working hard to that end.

For more of my thoughts on The Coop, please see my blog post.

What can we expect from Flock in the future? Do you have plans to integrate with more social web services, such as Facebook or Twitter, for example?

Currently, execution is the focus; we’re working hard to get the 1.0 version out to market.  We’re always looking to meet our users’ needs and provide the most integrated browser possible. Importantly, Flock is also a platform and – in addition to select distribution partners like Piczo and Photobucket – Flock is committed to making it increasingly simple for a broad range of relevant services to easily handle the integration with Flock on their end (leveraging flock’s API’s, documentation and tools: see "developer.flock.com").

Some of the most recent upgrades soon to be launched include: Support for video in the media bar, blog editor support for all major blogging platforms, bookmarks with folders, publishing support for Ma.gnolia, and many additional upgrades leveraging the best from Firefox’s 2.0 Platform (in-line spell checking, anti-phishing, session recovery, etc.).

Do you plan to add more social networking features (such as the people in a browser concept)?

Yes, absolutely. Flock is focused on enabling its users to be more social and more in control of the way they define, engage and express themselves within their connected community. Flock is a two-way conversation and "people in the browser" has been an integral part of the public Flock vision since late 2005. I have the pleasure of being able to execute and ship this capability in the next few quarters.

Thanks Shawn for taking to time to answer my questions.