- Editor's Rating
By Dustin Sklavos
A social networking component is now more or less an essential component of new software products: iTunes with Ping, Windows Phone 7 and its massive amount of social network integration, the social features we talked about in Opera…and now we have a social web browser in Flock.
Flock is interesting because fundamentally it’s Google Chrome with social networking features grafted into the interface; this isn’t at all unlike the Chrome OS that Google is working on, which in turn is an extension of the notion that eventually you’ll be able to do everything through what amounts to a glorified web browser. Try to follow the progression, then; theoretically we’re moving towards doing everything within the web browser proper (“in the cloud” as it were), but Flock actually augments the browser itself for social networking. It’s simultaneously an evolution and a de-evolution, and this is what I’m talking about when I say these things are fascinating: the tail of the snake is in its teeth.
As I said, at its core Flock is Google Chrome. Earlier versions were based on Mozilla and some parts of Flock’s site still have a “Powered by Mozilla” logo on them, but the most recent versions openly state they’re built on Google’s Chromium open source project. Ultimately, this means Flock is a snappy little piece of software and should theoretically operate nearly as well as Google Chrome.
Flock has three big features that set it apart: the sidebar, the link button, and the ability to create an account with Flock that stores your bookmarks and so on in the cloud.
The social networking sidebar currently features integration with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. In addition to showing just how far MySpace has fallen, it feels strangely bare despite these being three of essentially the biggest services on the internet. That may be due to the omission of a site like Flickr, which has become a major image-sharing hub. The interface is reasonably simple, and you can create groups for different friends, but it does raise some questions, which I’ll address later.
The link button exists in the address bar, and essentially creates a shorcut for posting links to interesting sites on your Facebook and/or Twitter. It’s a great idea and makes sharing links with friends and family a lot easier.
Last but not least, a feature that Flock shares with Opera 11: being able to create an account and thus be able to log into any Flock browser and get your bookmarks and social network accounts connected to it. This is again a very useful feature, since I’m not a big fan of having to copy my bookmarks over to the Firefox installations on my laptops or media center.
Working with Facebook in Flock isn’t really an improvement over just having Facebook open in a separate tab in the browser of your choice, and essentially asks you to use Flock’s interface over Facebook’s. YouTube has the same issue; you can either use Flock’s simplified integration, or just keep a YouTube tab open. This is compounded by the fact that Firefox at least has plug-ins that can replicate these features. That brings the link button into focus, as again this is functionality that can be replicated in Firefox using plug-ins and probably Google Chrome as well (which would be essentially a deathblow to Flock.)
Speaking of plug-ins, unfortunately a visit to Flock’s site reveals that the browser supports extensions but only two are actually available. It’s an unfortunate case where the smaller browser is just going to have a harder time competing with the larger ecosystems of the incumbents; even Opera 11 is still in alpha and has more extensions available (though whether they actually work is another matter entirely.)
Another issue I wound up having with Flock is that if you want to use the social networking features without having to log in to them every time you open the browser, you pretty much have to link the browser to a Flock account. It’s not a terrible thing — having a Flock account means they’ll save your bookmarks and even open tabs on their server — but having to sign up for yet another account is tiresome.
As for use as an actual browser, Flock certainly gets the job done. Being built on Google Chrome, it shares both the speedy underpinnings and the clean interface; Flock isn’t unattractive or bulky, but feels snappy and lean. Cumulatively, Flock’s processes eat a decent chunk of memory — about 60-70MB on a clean open that can balloon to 200MB or more — but it never felt like it bogged the system down.
Flock isn’t a bad idea and brings a lot to the table. The fact that it’s lean and works well is to its credit; it’s amazing how much software I’ve had to review that have had serious, showstopping bugs. If nothing else, it’s worth at least trying. Flock is free and when you install it, it cheerfully imports your bookmarks from whatever browser you currently use. You can play around with it and determine if the social networking integration brings enough to the table for Flock to replace your browser of choice.
The problem is that there’s something that feels a little backwards about Flock. If we’re moving everything onto the internet proper, why dedicate space in the browser itself? Compound that with the lack of the kind of extension ecosystem that Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and soon Opera 11 share. You can tweak the browser of your choice to get much of the same functionality you get with Flock while enjoying the existing mountain of Flash downloaders, script blockers, and ad blockers.
Ultimately, Flock’s not bad. It works and works well, but it just doesn’t bring enough to the table to unseat any of the incumbents.