Flock browser makes life easier for net users

The web browser Firefox has reached the milestone figure of 100 million downloads and continues to eat into the monopoly of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, something which was once thought unthinkable.

The browser wars of the 1990s were supposed to be over, with Explorer the undisputed champion. It had become the default application and that, it seemed, was that.

And so it was, until the well-documented rise of Firefox, on the back of added security, improved aesthetics, better features and more than a little global anti-Microsoft sentiment.

Its prime attraction is imagination. Firefox aims to improve your web experience through constant innovation, and it is that flurry of new ideas that threatens to make Firefox the browser that ate itself.

One of the advantages of Firefox for programmers is that its code is open-source, so anybody with the know-how can tailor it for their own needs. This is opposed to other browsers such as Explorer, which is uniform for every single user.

Using this process, a Californian start-up company has released a new browser, Flock, based on the Firefox source code. Flock’s creators have looked at the social networking side of the web and packed their product with features to make interaction easier.

In doing so, they have incorporated all the hottest web technologies of the past few years in one tidy package: weblogging, tagging, RSS feeds, photo sharing, social bookmarking.

Of course, if terms like Flickr, RSS and del.icio.us mean nothing to you and the web is just a handy place to book flights, then Flock is not the product for you.

But increasingly, people are looking to the web not just as a source of information, but as interaction, and these social networking applications are where they are going.

The idea is to help users connect with people rather than just websites. For instance, Flock aims to “take the headache out of blogging”.

Users can click straight through to their blogs rather than having to sign in every time, or highlight a chunk of text and transfer it directly into a post.

This is particularly convenient as blogging can be a labour-intensive project on a daily basis, and any way to make it easier will be welcomed by the community.

Flock also makes it easier to share files, photos and bookmarked pages with the rest of the web, or to view feeds from news sites or other blogs. Some of these features are available as add-ons to Firefox or through portals like Yahoo!, but Flock integrates them seamlessly.

Flock is still in development mode, so although it is available to the public, it’s liable to cause your computer to crash. However, as it is based on the Firefox code, it is already very stable, and the company is aiming for a full release by December 15th.

If it is successful – and it has the media coverage, backing and features to be – Flock will almost certainly take users away from Firefox more so than Explorer. Similar projects will probably surface, with the potential to fragment the burgeoning opposition to Explorer just as it gets into its stride.

The founder and chief executive of Flock, Bart Decrem, who has worked extensively with Firefox in the past, is keen to dismiss these fears.

He explains on his blog why Flock has launched a separate browser rather than just a Firefox extension that could be added on to the parent product, and stresses his good intentions.

“We too love Firefox,” he says. “We want to be able to offer our users a complete end-to-end user experience, including a single browser download, an update service, technical support . . . the works.

“We don’t want to break anyone’s Firefox experience, or have our browser break due to updates either way that have not been fully tested and propagated.

“In the short term, that means that fewer people will play with our stuff, but over the long term we believe it’s the right way to go for us. Of course, there will be many people who are perfectly happy with Firefox and are not interested in trying a new browser.

“The good news for those folks is that there are already hundreds of Firefox extensions, many of them aimed at integrating social services into the browser.”

Essentially, Firefox is in no real danger at the moment. Flock is aimed at a niche market, albeit a very large niche.

The emergence of Firefox has forced all browser designers to rethink their product after a decade of stagnation – Microsoft will soon release Explorer 7, its answer to Firefox – as the public expects more and more features and innovation, and the open-source community will be careful not to let the market slow down again.

What is more interesting is the possibility that Flock is the type of innovation that we will be seeing more and more of as the idea of Web 2.0 takes off.

At present, Web 2.0 is a highly complex concept that the web’s biggest minds have difficulty explaining and many dismiss as a media-friendly buzzword with little substance behind it.

The basic idea is that the web is moving beyond a store of information to something much more dynamic.

By concentrating its energies on social websites, Flock has shown itself to be a product of the new ways of thinking.

“The web has evolved very dramatically from a big library to a library, shopping mall and increasingly, a social space where people exchange information, communicate with each other and share information,” says Decrem.

A recent article by computer publishing guru Tim O’Reilly tried to explain Web 2.0 neither with a snappy definition or a wordy summary, but with practical examples.

He compared Web 1.0 applications with Web 2.0 ones, and the latter group included Flickr, tagging, blogging and syndication – all of which are integrated within the Flock browser.

The second annual Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco will no doubt have moved the transition process on a great deal.

As Web 2.0 changes from being a grand design to something that actually affects the rest of us, its progress will be tracked and moulded on blogs, news forums and other interactive sites.

© 2005 The Irish Times