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,┬áso 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.

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