Sunday, October 23, 2005

Broken Wings

Flickr PhotoThis week, I, the displacement king, have been buggering about with Flock. Mostly futilely, if the truth be known.

Sorry, Lee, what? Please don’t tell us you’ve been trying to bum the sheep again?

No, not the flock. Flock.

Those of you who haven’t yet heard the news may be pleased to learn of the existence of a new web-browser (yeah, right, like there isn’t one of those everyday - but don't all get your coats at once) based on Mozilla, but designed for the web-citizen; denizen of the nebulous Web2.0, rather than the flighty web-tourist. It’s a social browser, an internet interactivity app, rather than your basic type here, look there, go somewhere else, browser. It’s built for those of us who use the web to create and share, rather than to do our homework on eighth century viking invasions of Norfolk.

And, in the sense that I regularly use the word to describe something completely diverting that I forget about forever after less than a week, it’s awesome.

Perhaps I could actually take the time to explain it to you?

For instance, what actually makes it any different to IE, Firefox, Safari, and the like? Well for one thing, the term social browser is pretty apt. Flock is all about the making, collecting and sharing of web content.

The first thing you’ll notice about the app, is that it doesn’t utilise bookmarks in any recognisable way. What is does do is ask you for your user name and password, and then syncs up with your online favourites, which is pretty smart. It’s also pretty useless if you have no idea what is, and all your bookmarks are stored locally, as there is no way of getting your bookmarks from Safari, or any other browser, into Flock.

I managed it by exporting my Safari bookmarks to Firefox, and then using Julian Bez’s loader to upload and tag them. It worked well for me, and didn’t take too long, as even though I have around 300 bookmarks, I try to limit their categorisation. Other people have said the loader craps out at 50 bookmarks, so I guess mileages vary.

So now all my bookmarks are collected in one place, online, accessible from any computer I’m using, and by anyone using tags relative to my own. This is good, and I am pleased. I want to share some more; how about photos?

Flickr PhotoOkay, then. Flock has a really neat feature called the topbar. This is a direct link to yours, or other peoples’ Flickr photos, and it is killer (the topbar can also be used as a direct interface to your blog, if you have one, but it always crashes for me). You can easily check out your friend's and contact's photosets without leaving the site you’re on. Sadly, again, if all this Flickr business is new to you, and you have zero pictures online and 25,000 in iPhoto, this is no good for you. Uploading photos is not difficult, and there are many methods of doing so, but currently Flock does not offer one.

I also have to report that even though Flock, like Safari and Firefox, is capable of aggregating feeds, it currently does a piss poor job of it. Once more, the fact that you cannot import from an OPML file fucks with your day. At the moment the only way of using Flock’s RSS implementation is to visit every one of your favorites and allow it to detect feeds. That’s just shit and, at the moment, so is its method of displaying them. This is a developer preview, I know, so there are no final judgments here, but this needs urgent work in my opinion.

I can see the migration issue being a big stumbling block in the way of uptake, and unless the Flock devs can come up with some super swank set-up wizard for neophytes that uploads bookmarks from your current browser to, and introduces you to Flickr, or some other photosharing service, Flock will struggle. Because, let’s be honest, if Flock’s only aim is to be the browser for people who are already savvy to these services it’s not going to get far. A quick search of for instance, reveals the most popular bookmark to be slashdot, with a meagre 9477 links. Mainstream sites such as the BBC, one of the most popular web-sites in the world, have 2512. Flock is currently niche software of the narrowest kind, and even if it were used by every single person with a collection, that wouldn’t be enough for it to survive.

But enough with the downers, there’s way more good stuff.

Flickr PhotoSearches, for one. These are great, and very Spotlight-like. Type your query into Flock’s search bar, and as well as being able to hunt it down on Google, Yahoo etc, Flock will also scan both your favourites and history for you. It’s such an obvious development, really. I mean, why have web, bookmark and history searches all in different places, when a single pane can do it all. Brilliant thinking.

And the shelf. This is ace! Found a picture you like, or particular pice of text, or need to build a collection of links for a research project - this is the way to do it. Just drag what you want to the shelf, and it acts like a giant clipboard, storing content until you need it.

And what might you need it for? Why, blogging of course. My friends, this is Flock’s raison d’etre, and its coup de grace is its blog editor. Flock is without question the browser for bloggers. This one feature is what’s going to make Flock an indispensible piece of software for bloggers everywhere and it’s this, not bookmark integration or snazzy photo viewing that’s going to make Flock a success.

Even though, as I’ve said, this is a developer release and not without bugs, already the blog editor is hugely accomplished. It makes posting an absolute piece of cake. Simply drag in an image, resize it and select how you want text to flow around it, and you’re ready to post. Or highlight a selection of text, drag it in, and Flock creates blockquote tags and a link to the reference. Although categories aren’t presently supported, you can add Technorati tags very easily. I wouldn’t use it exclusively yet, not so long as it’s prone to crash and lose whatever you’ve been working on, but for posting short bursts of inspiration, it’s ideal.

Flock has plenty of potential, and already one great strength. Its greatest weakness lies in its learning curve. As soon as it learns to reach out, and help potential users to see things its way and aid them in migrating, it is gonna soar.

Category: Computing and Web

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  1. Bumming the sheep? Is that like a UK version of Jumping the Shark?

    From now on I think it ought to be... acknowledging the famous episode where EMMERDALE reached its nadir...

  2. I still have that on tape. Those Dingles, pure gold!