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Flock Flies the Firefox Coop

Flock has undergone a major evolution in the last year. From the Swiss-Army knife of social media to a slimmed down browser that tackles Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube only. Even more shocking, the project has dumped Firefox for Chromium. Was the switch worth it?

The Flock folks have abandoned Firefox and embraced Chromium. The social browser is taking a turn away from Firefox and a social media Swiss Army knife and towards a slimmed down browser that focuses on Twitter and Facebook.

Flock has always struck me as a good idea with execution that has fallen just short of the mark. It’s never been entirely clear what the company’s plans for revenue were based on Flock, and if there’s really enough demand for a social media Web browser. But with millions and millions of Facebook users racking up billions of hours in Farmville, maybe a Facebook focused Flock is what the doctor ordered. The last time I reviewed it, Flock was pretty good — but not great. I used it daily for a while, and then went back to Firefox for my primary browsing. That was almost exactly a year ago, and the company hadn’t come out with a significant update since — even though Flock 2.5 was based on an aging release of Firefox.

Now we know why, I suppose. Last year the company denied it would be switching to Google Chrome. It looks like the company has rethought that.

The New Flock

First of all, I can’t say I’m particularly pleased with the company’s shipping a Windows version but nothing for Linux or Mac OS X. Really? Even Opera got back on the ball with the 10.60 beta (which we’ll look at soon) and shipped Win, Mac, and Linux versions at the same time. The beta page isn’t promising on the Linux front, either. It has a slot to ask for an email when the Mac port is ready, but says nada about Linux. First Songbird, now Flock? That’s disappointing.

The upshot is, if you want to play with the new Flock (as of this writing, anyway) you’re going to be doing in on Windows. So I went ahead and fired up a Windows 7 virtual machine and gave it a shot.

After launching the reborn Flock, it asks you to sign up for a new Flock account and you can also sign in to your Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. After churning a bit, it creates the Flock account and signs you into your social media account(s). Note that the Flock folks have opted to concentrate on just a handful of services, rather than trying to offer support for several photo sharing sites or multiple social media sites. So you get Flickr, but no Picasa. Twitter, but (sadly) no Identi.ca. Facebook, but no LiveJournal or MySpace.

Compared to first-gen Flock, the Chromium-based Flock is very limited in additional features. You get the standard Chromium features, plus the ability to have a sidebar for Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. You’ll see updates, be able to respond to messages, create groups, and search your through updates from your contacts in addition to searching the Web. That’s about it. Flock’s custom home page that shows all your feeds and contacts is gone. Its RSS reader features, toast. Flickr uploader? It’s gone. The Flock tools for blogging are out. The tools for clipping material from Web pages are gone.

With all the subtractions, its hard to see why a fork of Chromium is necessary vs. just shipping an extension for Chrome. What made Flock particularly interesting was all of the features straight out of the box. Blogging, microblogging, picture sharing, feed reading, etc. That might have been too unfocused for many users, but it was what I found appealing about Flock. The new Flock doesn’t really provide much more functionality than a tool like Gwibber or TweetDeck. It’s easy to use, and maybe Flock’s value add on top of Chromium is enough to drive adoption, but it seems like a step backwards.

Look out Mozilla

Whether or not Flock succeeds, it’s not a ringing endorsement of Mozilla. Last week I looked at Firefox losing its foothold with some of the Linux distros. It was once a sure thing that distros would ship Firefox, and companies that wanted to build browser-based apps would go with Firefox or its components. Developers might have grumbled a bit about problems with XUL or Gecko not being as slim or fast as it could be — but Firefox was the leader of the pack for open source browser development.

Now the landscape has shifted, and Webkit, Chromium, V8, etc. are getting a lot of love from developers. Yes, lots of people still love Firefox and its mission. Lots of users would sooner fight than switch. But part of Firefox’s health is judged not just by the impressive market share it’s grabbed from IE, but also the developer community around it. Google seems to be siphoning off some of that with the Chromium project, and many developers seem to prefer working with Webkit over Firefox technologies. That could have a pretty hefty impact on Firefox in the long term. The Flock blog that announced the new release notes that it’s a natural evolution to use Chromium after Firefox, and credits Mozilla for leading the way. But the basic message remains: Chromium was a better platform to build a derivative project.

Join the Flock?

If you really like Chromium, but also want a little social media spice to liven things up, give Flock a try. If you’re on Windows, anyway. We’ll keep an eye out for Linux builds, and see how the project will move forward. Flock has become a bit less of a power-user tool and more of a mainstream, but lightweight, project. That might just be crazy enough to work.

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