Flock: Firefox with integrated social software

Flock to a fascinating new browser
There’s always room for innovation in the world of open source. For example, Firefox is an awesome web browser, it too can be improved — or at least serve as the basis for further experimentation. Indeed, some enterprising developers have done just that, using Firefox as a jumping off point to create a new browser named Flock that incorporates all of the cool social software that’s appeared over the last few years.



What’s social software? There are several different definitions, but Clay Shirky, one of the gurus in the field, defines it as “software that supports group interaction.” In other words, any software that encourages people to interact and share with others falls under the rubric. (To find out more, check out the syllabus for a course on social software at http://www.granneman.com/go/socialsoftware.)
You can download the latest version of Flock from http://www.flock.com/developer/. It’s very early-stage software, so it may crash, lose data, and forget to feed your cat. There are downloads for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The download is bundled as a tarball (a gzip- compressed tar file), so you’ll need to save it, untar with tar zxvf filename, and then move the resulting flock folder where you want it to reside, perhaps /opt/, /usr/local/, or even your own ~/bin directory. Assuming that you move it to /opt/, you can open Flock running /opt/flock/flock (or by creating an alias that points to the executable).
Flock supports several social software services, such as del.icio.us, Flickr, a wide variety of blogging software, and several social software (also known as Web 2.0) concepts, such as sharing, tagging, and RSS feeds. In addition, Flock adds several new ideas and features for web browsers into the mix, such as the “Shelf,” a “Most Frequently Visited” pages list, and a really smart history search. Let’s take a look at a few of these.
Do you write a blog? Choose “Edit& gt; Preferences” and select the “Blogging” tab. Add your blog’s account info, which more than likely will work from within Flock. (WordPress, Movable Type, Typepad, Live Journal, and Blogger are currently supported.) Next, close “Preferences.” At any time after this, simply press the “Blog” icon in the Flock toolbar to open Flock’s blog editor. Type in your new blog entry (a simple yet nice WYSIWYG interface is provided), press Publish, and a few seconds later your blog is updated.
See a passage on a web site that you want to use as the basis for a blog post? Select the text, then right-click on it and choose “Blog This.” The blog editor opens, with your selected text already blockquoted and cited. If you want to add photos from your Flickr account at this point, you can do that as well. In the blog editor, press the “Topbar” icon and choose “Flickr Topbar.” If you haven’t already entered your Flickr username at “Edit& gt; Preferences& gt; Web Services& gt; Photo Sharing,” you can enter it immediately in the Flickr Topbar itself. A few seconds later, your Flickr photos appear. Grab the photo you want to include in your blog post and drag it onto the WYSIWYG area to include an image. It’s that easy!
The Shelf is a really cool idea that comes in handy when you see something that you want to blog about later. Choose “Tools& gt; Shelf,” and a small window appears. As you surf, drag interesting things that you see — text, images, or even URLs — to the Shelf. Flock saves the item, making it easy to later drag it to a blog post (see image).
The Shelf is a great idea, but there’s still some improvement possible: instead of a floating window, the Shelf should be a sidebar or a Topbar, so it’s out of the way and not floating on top of everything else, yet still constantly accessible. Such a change would vastly improve its usability, as well as the frequency of use.
For more info about Flock, there’s the Flock Community Wiki (http://wiki.flock.com), the Flock FAQ (http://www.flock.com/about/faq.php), the Roadmap of future development (http://wiki.flock.com/index.php?title= Flock_Roadmap), forums (http://community.flock.com/forum/42), IRC channels, and a really good essay explaining why the Flock developers built a new browser instead of just writing Firefox extensions (http://www.decrem.com/bart/2005/10/flock-firefox-and-open-source/). For such a young project, Flock is doing an excellent job keeping users and developers informed.
There’s only space on this page to cover a few of the cool things that Flock has to offer, so you really need to download the software and play with it. Be sure to read the Getting Started page at http://www.flock.com/fiveways/togetstarted/13.php, as it provides lots of ideas, and then just start exploring.
Flock isn’tquite ready to become your workhorse browser, but it definitely bears watching, as the level of innovation displayed already is quite impressive and extremely promising.

Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Don’t Click on the Blue E!:Switching to Firefox, is in stores now. You can reach him at class="emailaddress">scott@granneman.com.

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