The way we use the internet is changing. As well as using the web to buy books, clothes and CDs, download music, auction junk on eBay, book a holiday, and find out what’s going on in the world, we are increasingly using it to form networks and connections and share our thoughts with the world.
Think of the innovation that has happened in the last decade – the emergence of Google, YouTube and Facebook – and then consider for a moment the comparative lack of innovation in one crucial area: our web browsers, the software we use to access the internet.
While the most popular is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, an increasing number of people use alternatives, such as Opera (www.opera.com), Apple’s Safari (www.apple.com/safari) and Firefox (www.firefox.com). All have improved over the years: all have added clever little features, such as tabbed browsing (which allows you to open multiple web pages within a single window); integrated search bars, so we can look something up on Google or Wikipedia without having to go to their home pages; and “extensions”, third-party applications that allow you to check the weather, listen to music, or accelerate the speed of downloads with a single mouse click. All very handy, but none address the main problem: browsers are outdated. They are one of the few aspects of the internet that have not changed since the web’s first inception, despite our changing surfing habits.
THE WEB SOCIALITE’S BROWSER OF CHOICE
The explosive growth of social-networking sites that allow us to connect with friends and upload and share videos, photos and thoughts to blogs and websites has made the internet a more immersive experience, but this is not reflected in the way browsers are designed. They encourage a largely passive experience, forcing users to flit between different websites.
But a new browser hopes to remedy that. Flock does all the normal stuff that other browsers do, but it also pulls content from a host of social-networking sites directly into your browser window, so that it is all there; there is no need to visit individual sites. Flock is a browser without the browsing.
“Flock was founded on the vision that the web browser can and should enable the richest user experience possible across information-gathering, sharing, communication, self-expression and interaction,” says Shawn Hardin, Flock’s CEO. “For the tens of millions of people who use social networking, photo and video sharing and blogging services, Flock simplifies their web experience by integrating these services into the browser.”
It is a simple idea, but one delivered with great skill and intelligence. Anyone who uses a Windows, Mac or Linux-based computer can try it out. The hope is that once you have seen how it streamlines your online existence, you will ditch your regular browser.
The Flock browser is elegant and well-designed. It is built on the same open-source code as Firefox, so the look and feel will be largely familiar to users of the world’s second most popular browser. When you first use Flock, it presents you with a homepage called “My World”. From here, you can create a personalised web portal, broadly similar to Google’s iGoogle, complete with lists of your favourite websites, live updates from your preferred RSS feeds (the program on websites such as news pages that delivers updated headlines to your RSS reader every time a story appears), and even a thumbnail gallery showing your favourite photos and videos online. Adding content to these My World categories is simple – there are shortcut buttons by the address bar that you click to stream content on to your portal page.
It is a handy starting point, providing at-a-glance updates on the topics that interest you but it really comes into its own when you move away from your My World page and start surfing the web. Flock is designed with the expectation that, somewhere on your travels, you will come across a web page or snippet of information that you want to share with friends, or comment on in your blog. So it provides integrated tools to make this simple.
The Media Bar at the top of the window, for instance, displays a rolling stream of photos and videos from media-sharing sites like YouTube, Flickr and Photobucket. You can search for certain topics, or browse media stored on friends’ accounts hosted by these sites. And you can drag and drop items from the media bar onto a blog or e-mail, or save it to a clipboard for later viewing.
Blogging software is also built in. Just allow Flock access to your account, click the Quill button when you want to create a post, and use the template. Again, you can drag and drop media into the post. When you are on a web page, you can right-click to pull up a blogging wizard that helps you to generate links or quotes from the web page and automatically insert them into your post. It is instantaneous, it is reactive; it is the way blogging is supposed to be. The latest version of Flock works with Blogger, Blogsome, LiveJournal, TypePad, Word Press, and Xanga, or a self-hosted blog, with more sites sure to follow in the coming months.
YOU’LL NEVER BE LONELY AGAIN
One of the best features is the People sidebar. Activate it, and you will never need to log into Facebook again. Flock fills your People bar with mini profiles of all your friends on social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. You can access your profile, update your status, upload photos, “poke” friends, scrawl on their walls and view their albums, all without having to log onto the website. Photos are streamed into the Media Bar, so you can browse friends’ pictures to your heart’s content. You will be able to instantly see when friends have updated their profiles or added new content, and communicate with them through the browser, sharing content as you wish.
Your My World page also offers you the option to sign-up to online bookmarking services such as Del.icio.us and Ma.gnolia, so that you can simply tag pages you add to your favourites with useful descriptions, and share your bookmarks. You can link up with people who have similar tags, find those whose bookmarking habits you like, and form groups with like-minded souls. Buttons within the address bar glow orange whenever Flock detects news feeds, people, or media that you can collect to your My World profile, or share with others.
It takes some experimenting to learn the full range of Flock’s capabilities, but soon you will be using it to build your portal page and add content and networks to the media and people bars, so they are always displayed on screen, regardless of what websites you are visiting. Some people argue that there just isn’t room for another browser, that the market is already crowded, and that Flock’s key features would gain more popularity and widespread use if they were simply developed as extensions that could be added to an existing Firefox browser.
Not everyone will appreciate such a busy looking page but for those of us whose online lives are almost as complex as our real-world relationships, Flock makes life simple. So much so, it really could be the next big thing. (The Daily Telegraph)
Net-working made easy
MySpace.com: With more than 300 million members this is the big daddy of networking sites. Owned by Fox Interactive Media, it offers an interactive network, along with blogs, photos and music.
Facebook.com: What started as an exclusive website for college students in the US, went mainstream in 2006. The social community now boasts nearly 85 million members worldwide.
Habbo.com: A hot favourite with teens in South America and parts of Europe. Owned and operated by Sulake Corporation, Habbo has 82 million members.
Orkut.com: The Google-owned social community website shot to fame in October 2006, after membership was opened to the general public. Membership – 67 million and growing.
Xanga.com: This community website is the perfect portal to pen your thoughts in an online diary or journal. The website first launched in 1998 and now has over 40 million members.
Flock – the browser that makes browsing obsolete