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Stick a Fork in Flock: Why it Failed

This probably won't come as a surprise to many, but the "social Web browser" has thrown in the towel. Don't cry for the Flock team - they're flying the coop for Zynga to go make Facebook games or something. But Flock's loyal fans are out in the cold. Why'd Flock fail? There's a few lessons to be learned.

You might think that Flock failed simply because the idea, or execution, wasn’t good enough. I’ve written about Flock a number of times since 2005, and it might be hard to remember now — but there was a time when a “social browser” seemed like it might be a good idea. Flock tried to simplify interacting with social tools like Flickr, del.icio.us, and WordPress. This was long before Facebook and Twitter, which helped speed Flock’s demise.

Why’d Flock fall flat? It failed on a couple of counts — it wasn’t open enough, it was too slow, it didn’t have a valid business plan, and added little of value and nothing that inspired any kind of loyalty to its product/service.

Open Fail

Flock rode on Firefox’s coattails for years, until switching to Chromium at the last minute in 2010. However, where Firefox is a project that’s made great strides by being open and inspiring contributors with a vision of an open Web, Flock was not fully open source. It wasn’t a project that encouraged contribution from outside.

Flock also failed because they were trying to be a fork of a project they simply couldn’t keep up with. The Flock browser typically trailed Firefox by a version or two, so that meant that while Flock had a few bonus features for social tools, Firefox had major features that weren’t yet in mainline Flock.

There’s also the fact that Flock couldn’t tap all of Firefox’s extensions. Some were incompatible with changes in Flock, others were incompatible because Flock was behind Firefox and extensions depended on newer versions of Firefox.

The Flock crew could have solved this by doing what others did — develop features as extensions, or by working with the Firefox project to put features into mainline. But then they wouldn’t “own” the features, right?

Business Fail

Another problem that Flock had was it simply lacked any sort of business model. Like too many social network plays, they just didn’t have any realistic plan to make money.

As a user, you may not care whether Flock (or Twitter…) has a business model — until the company runs out of money and/or its development suffers because they can’t hire enough talent to move quickly.

Part of the missing business plan was a failure to “lock in” users. I don’t mean a proprietary style lock-in that makes it difficult and painful to leave, though. I’m talking about the same thing that’s kept me going back to Firefox over the years, or the same thing that’s kept me going back to any good restaurant or business — providing something of value that the competitors don’t.

In the case of Firefox, I’m talking about not only the Mozilla vision of the Web (which is an intangible that many users won’t care about) but the massive extension ecosystem. Aside from the bells and whistles that Flock provided for a couple of social Web services, there wasn’t much that it offered on its own. Flock really derived all of its value from third party services. What was invaluable about Flock? Nothing, really.

Too Slow

Flock was slow. Slow to release, and slow running. Firefox was dinged for a long time because it was getting slow and bloated, but Flock was worse. Over the years, I tried new Flock releases as they came out and usually stuck with them for about a week — until I got tired of missing extensions and the glacial speed of the browser.

But they were also simply slow in releasing updates and keeping up with Firefox. I think the Flock folks sorely underestimated what it would take to maintain what amounts to a fork of Firefox.

Flock was also slow in adding features for social services. It couldn’t keep up with Facebook or Twitter, for example. If I recall correctly, it never supported Identi.ca. It couldn’t scale to keep up with the social Web, which is a problem for a browser that was focused on the social Web.

But it was a good run while it lasted, and I think Flock was an interesting attempt. But it ultimately didn’t have the right stuff to stay afloat. If nothing else, it can serve as a object lesson in what not to do when trying to build a business around an open source project.

Comments on "Stick a Fork in Flock: Why it Failed"

augier

I tried Flock a couple of times and went through the same problems: it was slow and was missing my Firefox extensions. I am now using Rockmelt, which is another tentative of a social browser and feel it is succeed to the usability + usefulness challenge. It is a fork of Chrome if I have understood the technical guts behind and it has regular updates.

Marc
ps: I am not a Rockmelt vendor, I am just looking for comments …

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schwim

It failed because it perfected what social networking is all about. The developers were able to update their status on so many networking sites, connect with so many people and tell the masses every thought that popped in their head that they no longer had time to actually be productive. That’s the social web in it’s purest form.

Zynga is an absolute perfect spot for them to end up. Now they’ll get to develop games for the people that have a few minutes to kill in between updating their status and going out to see if their unemployment check has landed in their mailbox.

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wweng_linux

This is ridiculous. Why would the success of a product have anything to do with its openness???

And to be honest, the reason flock can not keep up with firefox has NOTHING to do with it being close source. To project like firefox, chrome or Android, contribution from outside is no longer significant. These projects are doing what others haven’t done before. To them, having correct vision is far more important than being open.

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rambotribble

Hmmm… You don’t suppose that social media has become so flocked up that it just couldn’t take anymore flocking?

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I was a user of Flock, and used it for things like YouTube, Tinypic, Photobucket and a forum site that I frequent. Flock was useful for easily accessing those accounts.

I don’t think that Flock failed b’cos it wasn’t Open Source. My problems w/ it was that it did not keep pace w/ the latest advances in Firefox. For instance, Add Ons were a joke, and they never had any support for themes – even Personas, which even Thunderbird and Seamonkey support. Also, Flock didn’t keep track of the changes in the services that it promoted – for instance, it promoted only Tinypic & Photobucket, even after the latter acquired the former, and kept promoting Delicious even after it had been devoured by Yahoo!

Had Flock done a better job of supporting add-ons, and had a model by which it would have avoided Firefox’s pitfalls of dropping add-on compatibility, it would probably have been a lot more successful.

Also, Flock could have promoted itself more actively on non Windows environments, where its only competitor was for the large part Firefox.

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Cheat Engine thrived with flock…

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Flcok failed because of it’s leadership. They were disengage long before the announcement, not being forthcoming in short the ugly part of the silicon valley exit mentality, it is never about the user or product and all about the $$$.

The CEO was a nobody who came from nowhere and went back to anonymity – on its own a red flag.

It was a good browser, good and solid core Gen-I team that went downhill from there.

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Ahhh, Flock. I really loved this browser, but it wasn’t open-source, was slow, and generally kept failing to work with sites. I eventually gave it up for Opera. Few years later, I though “Hmm, wonder how Flock is getting along,”. Opened up their website, only to find the project had been canceled.
It was an interesting idea, but the execution was poor.

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I used flock several times in 2011. It was really good first time i used but when i tried multiple tabs turned slow! The article provides points on failure and what i’ve told it’s user experience.

Romila Sankar, Marketing consultant
Logo to You
Greer, South Carolina

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I couldn’t help but notice the use of the term “open” both in the article and the comments as if that meant something. What is meant by open here ? A proprietary API may be open but it is not free software and as far as I’m concerned that is the dividing line when discussing any software. And why would anyone think “lock in” is a good thing whether it be in proprietary file formats, proprietary code or dependency on an extension ecosystem. Are any of the extensions providing significant additional functionality other than ad blockers ?

And how can one say at the end of the article that Flock was “a good run while it lasted”. If it was that good which the article definitely indicated it was not it would have probably lasted longer than it did.

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I do not have the slightest idea

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