16 January 2006

Browsing with flock and using web services

The most useful technology I've come across recently is flock. Flock is a derivative of the Mozilla/Firefox browser. Flock's feature twist is that it allows greater integration into a growing number of online collaborative services (an aspect of the so called Web 2.0). It's not so much flock's greatness (flock is certainly good anyway), its that it has opened the door for me to new online services and simplified and encouraged their use. I believe that killer features (like the ones I list below) will become commodities and more progressive browsers like Firefox (and last generation browsers like MS IE) will fold the features in. The key is the seamless integration and use of the new features, regardless of how you get to the features.

So what are "online collaborative services"? Briefly, they are an online information sharing service that you would normally access via a browser but can also access via an Applications Programming Interface (API). It is the API access that allows applications like flock to tightly integrate to the service. And by tight integration, I mean that you can use the service "in context", that is, you don't have to "go anyplace" (e.g., another webpage, login, navigate, ...) to perform an action. You just have to do the bare minimum to complete a task. To understand this better, consider the following online services and flock features.

Service/Feature #1 - del.icio.us and favorites

del.icio.us is a service that you use to specify and store a set of links and share them with others. The community that adds and shares links results in popularity and discovery of shared interest information sources within the community. While handly for users that frequently move between machines they don't have control over (e.g., Internet Cafe, University), I didn't consider it useful as I move between work, home and laptop, all of which I have sole control over. While a common links page was mildly useful, it wasn't useful enough to flip to a dedicated website to do this.

Flock directly integrates its "Favorates" function into del.icio.us. Therefore, no matter which browser you use flock from, your Favorites list is synchronized at flock start-up and whenever you add a new favorite. This solves the multiple favorites list when switching between browsers at work, home, and laptop devices.

Flock also provides enhanced search functionality, which includes a search of your favorites before using something like google (more on this below).

Privacy should be a concern that comes immediately to mind. del.icio.us generally shares your favorites with the del.icio.us community (partial work-around exists with explanation). If someone knows your uid, they access your list of links and tags (keywords you use to identify page content when you add a new link into del.icio.us). On the one hand, there are good reasons for congruency throughout ones life (private-public, work-home). On the other hand, business competition is a reality, and I wouldn't create a publicly viewable set of tagged (grouped) links for a sector for which I wanted to maintain secrecy and competitive advantage. Not to mention pr0n preferences!

Service/Feature #2 - blogging

Blogging is the act of writing about and sharing information. Often blogging includes references to another source of information.

Flock includes direct integration to three blogging services - wordpress, blogger, and typepad. Having never blogged before, I started with Wordpress, then moved on to blogger (see my previous entry for rationale). After setting up an account, feeding the uid/pw to flock, I was able to make immediate in-context blog entries.

I'll stay well away from judgment or thoughts on blogging, at least for now.

Service/Feature #3 - feed reader

Many websites, especially news portals and blogs, provide information feeds. These feeds provide a flow of new information being posted on the website. Items in the flow may only contain summary information, or may be the whole chunk of information as it is posted on the website. A feed reader is an application that allows you to specify which feeds you're interested in, then present those feeds to you. The format and manipulation of the data varies by feed reader application.

Flock (as inhereted from Firefox) provides a feed reader, and is clever enough to look for feed presence indicators on each page it loads. If it finds such an indicator, it notes it in the address bar with a Feed icon. Also, if you mark a page a Favoriate that has a related feed, flock will automatically start downloading and saving that feed local to your browser so that you can view it anytime (connected to the Internet or not). The feed reader is pretty unsophisticated, but if you're not using one yet, flock provides a soft and easy introduction.

Service/Feature #4 - flickr

flickr, purchased not too long ago by yahoo, is a website that allows you to upload and share photographs. There are many other similar websites, with the first one I ever used being ofoto (now Kodak Gallary). Other than the API flickr offers (which enables flock integration), I'm not sure why flickr is seeing recent popularity.

Flock claims to provide good integration to flickr.

While I've downloaded and played with flickr, and flock-flickr integration, I've hit four roadblocks with it:

- flickr (as a free service) crippled your monthly upload compared to other similar services

- I don't care too much for the interface

- The flock-flickr integration doesn't work, at least for me (flock never displays the pix I've uploaded to flickr as part of trying it)

- I'm not a big photo enthusiast (I take lots of photos, I just don't do much with them!)

Feature #5 - search

This isn't a web service, but its still a very useful feature. Like Firefox, flock provides a search text entry box. However, Flock cleverly searches your history and favorites as you type in text, and displays those results in context (dropdown of sorts below search box). Now that I've built up a link history within flock and a Favorites set within del.icio.us/flock, I use this feature constantly.

Feature #6 - the shelf

The shelf is like a cross between an in-your-face set of favorites and an application neutral clipboard (where your copy/cut-and-paste content sits). The shelf allows you to highlight-copy-paste items that you find while browsing that you want to do something with later. The shelf sits as independent window, and accumlates (like a clipboard) items you drag or copy into it. I've not used this feature much, although I could see if you approach blogs with the approach to "gather-file-gather-file, write about it, bin files", it would work fine.


How solid is flock? I've not had it crash once. I have seen it start to freeze up between opening new links in new tabs, and seen memory use climb to silly levels (560MB in use). The blog entry editor is a little buggy, so you might have to do some manual editing within the blogging site interface to fix your post. There are other niggly details like error reporting and assistance/diagnostics, but nothing big. If you don't mind quiting and restarting periodically (perhaps daily or weekly depending on your use level), I've not had any significant problem.

What if flock and its development team goes away? Well, while you might get spoiled by the ease of direct service integration and other nice features, your investment isn't lost in the services you use. All of those services are available via their websites, and you can always use them that way. Other aspects, like all of your links that sit in del.icio.us, are cached to flock so you always have all your Favorites data anyway.

Realistically, I don't see the commercial relevance of flock. The more useful features will either be merged into Firefox, or maybe even eventually MS-IE. However, open source communities/products like Firefox, and tangential efforts like flock push the innovation envelop hard. I look forward to clever new web services and tight integration with the browser (and someday desktop). I do appreciate flock team efforts, and I hope they have any number of clever feature and commercial tricks up their sleeve to make a go of their business.

I've not been using flock and its new-to-me features for long now, so I don't claim great authority on it. This blog entry is a YMMV analysis to date using flock and the services it connects to. Regardless, I'm glad I found flock and spent time learning about the services it touches. I have found flock sufficiently stable and compelling enough to use now as my primary browser.

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