Why flock makes sense

I don’t generally get involved in these web2.0 brouhahas, but Flock has been on my mind recently. The most round of criticism comes after the release of Performancing a cross-platform browser plugin for Firefox that makes Flock pointless.

I was initially excited then skeptical of Flock, but it was at a talk about FireFox recently that I decided that Flock makes sense. Blake Ross and Asa Dotzler talked about how they had managed to create simple software in an open-source geek culture (not known for simple software). What struck me was that their method primarily seemed to be about having a small team that worked as gatekeepers keeping the non-essential stuff out. I am simplifying, but I have thought a fair bit about how to make usable software in an open source culture, and their method was definitely what I would term the “gatekeeper model”.

They also talked about Firefox’s current main challenge, which is to move beyond early adopters, and some early majority and go after more of the Internet Explorer crowd. Strategically, Firefox will be focused on a simple experience that is similar, but compares well to Internet Explorer. That is Firefox’s main battle especially with renewed efforts of Microsoft with IE.

You could argue that there are a lot plugins (like Performancing) and greasemonkey scripts that allow geeks to customize their experience. Yes, but how many people do customize their browsers (beyond Google toolbar etc.). I have not done that much. Very few people I know have bothered. And most of them have blogs, tag, upload pictures to Flickr etc.

That is the classic strategy for open source software BTW. Keep the complexity in the plugins, themes, etc. The onus is on the user to design their experience. It does not scale beyond a certain point. So Firefox could keep adding plugins (much like Drupal does) and we could have innumerable greasemonkey scripts, but the core software is not for supporting the “write” part of our web experience.

Clearly, we are doing a lot of things in the browser that the browser was not designed for. Flock is being designed from the ground up to accommodate us in our social web interactions. “from the ground up” is important. A solution designed for a problem that is different than the main problems with browsers when we started switching to Firefox. Remember the popups, the banner-ads, the spyware. And the tabbed browsing of course. That is why people switch.

I personally think that Flock’s problem is different. I believe they have not been able to articulate well or demonstrate (so far) what they are. “Social browser” that took me a while to wrap my head around. Is if for browsing social applications? What else is implied? What are some user pain points around the participatory aspect that can be solved? What should be the information architecture for a social browser? Chris, up for some classic user experience work?

Who knows, maybe Firefox will evolve to support this and end up being our read/write browser. But Flock might well lead the way.

4 thoughts on “Why flock makes sense

  1. I am not sure if we can say that Flock is being built from the ground up to handle the new “read/write” web. I think Flock is still an incremental enhancement to the traditional browser. We need a much more fundamental shift in approach and technology to truly enable the browser as the platform for developing rich internet social applications. The HTTP based Web is fundamentally 1-way and stateless which limits what can be done with it. That said, I find it hard to articulate exactly what this ideal browser/platform should look like. So I will stop here ;-)

  2. Ah, so you think that Flock does not go far enough. To be honest, I have taken only a brief look at Flock, and am assuming that part of the problem is that the Flock folks have not really articulated what they are building very well (in short – we still don’t know exactly where they are heading).

    However, your critique seems to be about whether Flock enables the browser for “developing rich internet applications” (did I get it right?), while I was talking more about participation in the social interactions.

    They are related issues but not the same.

    And your critique is much more fundamental, about the nature of HTTP itself. I wonder what people who think deeply about these issues will have to say about it. No answers, just thinking aloud.

  3. Yes, I was talking more in terms of developing rich internet applications – which is related but not same as enabling social interaction. Even from that (social interaction) angle, Flock does not appear to be “revolutionary”. It makes doing some things like blogging or bookmarking easy. It has decent integration with flickr. I could probably get a lot of it if I installed all the right FF plugins (like you mentioned).

    What would be really ground breaking will be if applications can be written to plug into a “social browser” rather than a browser plugging into flickr or del.icio.us. For example, if this mythical uber browser natively supported notion of “buddy lists”, “people profiles”, “identity browsing”, “structured content like blogs, reviews, events”, then interesting web applications can be developed which harness the power of this new platform. Each time I view somebody’s user profile (on their blog or their orkut or myspace account), this browser would pop up an option to add this user as a contact or something like that. Now I am myself finding it hard to articulate my thoughts but I think what we need is a platform, not just another browser.

    The one-way stateless nature of HTTP is of course a discussion in itself. Not having a push model available makes a certain class of applications impossible to develop over HTTP.

    Oh btw, please please please enable full text feeds on your blog. Right now I can just see the excerpt in my newsreader and its no fun that way :)

  4. Gaurav: I have a full text RSS, perhaps you have the wrong feed.

    Anyway, I still think that Flock is try to solve something that is not yet a problem, most blog and Flickr users have their own ways of post and would not want to use yet another tool to get the job done.

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