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I recently read an interesting column in a Dutch computer magazine (PCM). The columnist (Arjan Dasselaar) titled his piece “claptrap two dot zero”. In it he aired his irritations concerning Web 2.0 and its terms like ‘folksonomy’, ‘the perpetual beta’ and ‘remixability’. Despite networking socially via Linkedin, using Flickr and writing web logs, he claims not to understand what the fuss is all about. He argues that after all one did put photos online before Flickr, that sixdegrees.com started social networking avant la lettre in 1997, and that John Barger came up with the term web log back in 1997. Without a doubt he must have read the famous “What is Web 2.0” article by Tim O’Reilly. According to this article, the core competencies for companies to call their product Web 2.0 compliant has nothing to do with these new buzzwords. In fact in my opinion it covers some old school principles, I cite “Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models” as an example. What’s so new about that? Arjan sees evolutions here, not revolutions, and thus sees no reason to call it Web 2.0. Old wine in new bottles is his underlying message, or to put it in his own kind of phrasing: a lot of (old) hot air.
I cannot say that he’s entirely wrong. However, isn’t that the case with a lot of things? Take cars for instance. OK, things have evolved over the centuries and one could say that the launch of the VW Golf heralded a modern era. However despite the technology not being comparable, cars have remained a chassis on (mostly) four wheels running on an internal combustion engine that was invented some 200 years ago. Guess what that engine used as fuel? Oxygen and hydrogen! Yes, the so-called fuel of the future was already in use two centuries ago. History repeats itself.
If you find this example inconclusive I have another one, just to lay it on with a trowel. Digital TV is hot in Flanders . Nearly everybody in Flanders has cable TV. The two providers/groups – together with an old telephone company which is trying to do this over the high speed cable telephone lines – therefore had to come up with something new in order to sell digital TV to their customers. One of the main selling points they came up with was the video on demand capability, meaning that you can watch programmes whenever you like. Firstly, digital television is still in its infancy, and secondly, I have already had VOD for the last 20 years, thanks to my VCR. Over time I traded my VCR in for a HDD/DVD version, but the principle remains the same. The next argument was the number of channels available. I currently have over 40 channels (I could have over 70 if I was willing to pay an additional fee every month). How did that song from Bruce Springsteen go again? “Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”. It was the same thing as before digital TV. Then, as a final argument, the improved quality of the TV signals was given. There is a nice word for this in German – blödsin, in other words hogwash. That applies to LCD TV’s too. One still can’t beat a good quality CRT TV, unless one buys one of those high range (read expensive to buy/use) plasma screens, which can be thrown away after an average of four years, due to either burnt out tubes or degrading phosphors. Why do I consider the digital argument nonsense? In part due to the fact that no digital signal will ever leave that top box set. Not that it’s not capable of doing so, but for purely non-technical reasons. The production company will never allow it. If the signal leaves the top box set digitally, it can be duplicated endlessly without loss of quality. Why do you think that the newest HDD boxes don’t have a DVD drive or any other connection to the outside world? OK, there is the HDTV broadcasting of the World Championship soccer in Germany . Unlike in The Netherlands, they’re not planning on doing anything with it in Flanders . The argument is that one needs an HDTV for it.

From Belgium witlof
Back to the main subject of this web log. I don’t fully agree with the author of the column either though. He focuses too much on the folksonomy, etc., which is a common pitfall. I guess this is due to the lack of engagement style or the O’Reilly article. They prefer to give examples on what makes products Web 2.0 compliant instead of defining a check list. That means that everybody is free to pick out whatever he/she likes in order to call his/her product Web 2.0 compliant. With even this dodgy Web 2.0 validators as a result.
The browser market has jumped on the Web 2.0 hype too. One of the first real results that I found is Flock. I discovered this one when I wandered in to Chris Pederick’s site, you know the guy from the earlier Letting the cat out of the bag marvellous Web Developer extension for Firefox, etc. I was rather sceptic about this browser. Yet another derivate of the Mozilla code base like Seamonkey, Camino, Netscape, Epipheny, Galeon and K-Meleon I thought. Nevertheless, something aroused my curiosity, besides the claim of it’s being Web 2.0 compliant: the CEO is a Belgian. Not that I’m a flag waver, but Bart Decrem was, like me, born and raised in Brussels . After moving to Palto Alto he started Plugged In, co-founded Eazel, coordinated the creation of the GNOME Foundation, moved to Korea as Vice President of Business Development at Linux One, came back to the US as head marketing and business affairs for the Mozilla Foundation and coordinated Firefox marketing activities like Spread Firefox. Speak of an export product! Finally something other than chocolates!
Now it’s Flock. The whole idea of Flock started out as an extension of Firefox in order to use the browser for social services. It is claimed that they came to the conclusion that a full browser would be better. It seems to be hype already since some Dutch people have now created Fleck, whatever it may be. Apart from saying that is a “patent pending, world changing, paradigm shifting and user experience enhancing technology. Tagging, search, blog, AJAX and social networking, every WEB2.0 hype is covered.”, nothing is actually revealed about the product. I prefer to stick to real products like Flock, which is why I decided to give it a try.

Pre-beta
The first thing that I discovered is that, as such, it is only available for development purposes. The public beta starts at version 0.7. Version 0.5.12 is available at the moment of writing, but I’m not letting that stop me from downloading and installing it. I survived the MIE 7 public beta test.
When I download it, I see that the footprint (9 741Kb) is far bigger than Firefox 1.5 (5 103Kb). It is still smaller than the MIE 7 beta (11 553Kb), but why can’t one come up with tiny things like Opera 9 beta (4 088Kb)? Anyway, the installation of Flock goes smoothly, despite minor imperfections like the wrong version indication (0.5.11 instead of 0.5.12) being shown on the installation screens.
Starting the browser is fast. A lot faster than Firefox 1.5. I don’t know if they’ve done this deliberately and made code swifter or whether they still stick to core Firefox code. I guess I will never know. One doesn’t indicate on which Firefox version (my guess is 1.0) Flock is based and whether they plan to follow its lifeline or not. I sent them a mail saying that I wanted to blog about it and asking whether I could ask some questions if I had some. At the moment of writing this sentence we are now a week further and I still haven’t received any reply (yet). I don’t know whether they got my message (maybe it was filtered out by a SPAM detector) or not. Maybe they don’t consider the SDN community as important enough, which would of course be an incorrect assumption. I’m not going to let my judgement be influenced by this though. I’m straying off the straight and narrow again. Back to the browser.
Despite the fresh and smooth interface, I recognised the back and forward arrows immediately. They are exactly the same as those from within MIE 7, but less amateurish. It would appear that all the browser manufacturers buy the services of the same designer (a kind of Pininfarina, Stork or Alessi) or else they just “borrow” ideas.

Persona non grata
First, I wanted to see to what extent the browser itself is different to Firefox. As such, it isn’t different at all. It has the same extensibility as Firefox. There is a bug though. One would expect that each extension, theme and search engine available for Firefox, would work on Flock. Well, that isn’t the case here. I tried installing Clusty from the page Flock refers to and I got the message ‘Incompatible Extension or Extension is no longer available’. In other words, Flock wasn’t recognised.
It was the same scenario for extensions. I wanted to install Chris’ web developer toolbar and it did recognize Flock, but said that my version was compatible. Chris updated the toolbar in order to let it be compatible and it still wouldn’t let me install it. Whatever Chris and I tried, it didn’t work. As a last attempt I uninstalled Flock and tried the latest hourly build, which resulted in an installable toolbar.
It is clear that the people from Flock have some work to do in order to make things compatible in order to prevent people from having to rebuild their extensions. It’s already a shame that one has to do it with each new major Firefox release and I think that one has better things to do than to be overtaken by events. Flock might have interesting features – which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph – but there’s more in browser life if you want to be adopted by the users.
There are some other strange phenomena like setting the current page as the default page for the browser. I accidentally had two tabs open and it took the URL from the first (non-active) tab instead of the second active tab. Let’s categorize this as a bug. These things can happen. It is a pre-beta release after all.

Blog this
It’s time to discover which of the Flock specific features make them self-claimed Web 2.0 compliant. The first thing that is different from other browsers is the favourite’s manager. Instead of just putting everything in a local bookmark file, Flock takes another path. There is the star button. It’ll ask whether you want to make the favourites offline or online. I advise you to choose the latter, you can store it in del.icio.us or shadows. If you don’t do this, the next time you visit that URL, the star will be orange, indicating that you’ve been interested in that specific site and you can put it online after all. Of course one can add tags to the favourites in both cases.

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The favourite’s manager should also work as a feed reader. Either it doesn’t work or I don’t understand the philosophy, but I couldn’t get it to work properly. When I went to an RSS feed, I just got the XML. It didn’t matter whether the RSS came from SDN or from other sources. Therefore, I did the same as with the extensions and installed a newer hourly release, and then they appeared, both the SDN as well as the others. It doesn’t look that nice as in e.g. MIE7, but it’s a start.

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I still don’t see what the faves manager has to do with it as such, unless you build a collection of RSS feeds in your favourites in order to prevent having to retype or of forgetting stuff. What’s the big deal about that?
Next thing I tried was the history search. Flock has a Clucene search engine built in, which indexes all pages visited. Whenever you type something in the search bar it’ll show the pages you visited before, with the favourites at the top of the list. A nice feature that works very well. I wonder if it can be extended with a kind of index manager where you can say how long things must be remembered and which words not to index and stuff like that. I might not have looked hard enough but the only option I found was to clear all data.
Next major feature is the web logging facility that allows you to create a web log within the browser via a WYSIGWYG editor. This editor is compatible with WordPress, Movable Type, Typepad, Live Journal and Blogger. It understands how to put the statuses and tags for the respective web log systems. A nice feature is also to mark a text anywhere in a site and choose Blog This in the context menu. Unfortunately, it stays with a single link to the whole page.

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Off the shelf
A nice feature is the Flickr interface. It allows you to browse Flickr by searching on user and/or tag and it’ll retrieve the thumbnails in your browser. If one clicks on it, the specific photo will be shown. In actual fact it goes to the Flickr page of that photo. I like the ability to add photo’s by drag and drop preventing you from having to use the Flickr desktop application or web interface.

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The last feature I want to mention is the shelf function. You can select anything from a web page and put it on your shelf for later use. If you want to use that snippet in your web log, all you need to do is to drag it from your shelf scrapbook to the web log.

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Conclusion
I have mixed feelings about this browser. I like the added features of Flock. Despite not being mature – which can be expected from a pre-beta version – the direction that this browser wants to go in is clear. The question one might ask is whether the mentioned features really need to be packed in to yet another browser and not simply added via extension(s). What’s the added value of that extension, since it already exists? Is there a market for it and are people willing to install yet another browser for it? I wish the Flock people luck, but I’m afraid that it’ll remain a niche product at the best. They may get a chance to survive if they do something about the compatibility issues and stay close to the Firefox family tree in order to convince people to considermoving to Flock. There is of course the Web 2.0 story. If the picture remains clouded and open to interpretation, it is unclear in which direction it’ll evolve.

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1 Comment

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  1. Bertrand LAFOUGERE
    Despite I’m a fan of FireFox I will no way install nor try Flock. I add enought extensions to explore and existing one to master not to try a fork.

    How do you want us to respond if you steal our questions ? 😀 Reading your blog I immediatly think, why doing a fork of firefox when it could have been (I would even say when it’s certainly) an extension.

    I think that what made the power of firefox is it’s extensions and doing a fork on the same OS platform is an error. I don’t know what they expect exactly but doing it as a set or a collection of extensions would have been smarter.

    We’ll see.

    (0) 

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