Flock made its name as a Firefox remix that came loaded with custom add-ons for tightly integrating social networking with daily Web browsing. Just opened to the public, the Flock 3 beta keeps its social goals intact while replacing its Firefox base with Google-supported Chromium. The new Flock experience is vastly different than before, and is related to the old version in name only.
It's currently available only for Windows, although Flock CEO Shawn Hardin said in an interview two weeks ago at the CNET offices in San Francisco that a Mac beta should be ready in July. The new Flock strips the social networking support down to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. By limiting initial support to the two dominant social networking players and the two dominant media-sharing sites, but making access to them fast and generally comprehensive, the new Flock is able to demonstrate why it's useful without overwhelming users.
Minor interface changes belie the significant changes in how Flock operates. Being based on WebKit, it looks similar to Google Chrome and Apple Safari. The tabs aren't flush with the top of the browser as they are in Chrome, and the new home page is set to your Flock account manager. There's a big Google search box in the middle of the page, which is part of a new search monetization partnership between the two companies, and text links to your most-recently visited sites. At the top, just below the bookmarks bar, there are links to the Flock-enhanced features favorites and groups.
In addition to the repurposing of the Home button and the Flockification of Favorites, there are three other changes. Next to the Favorites button there's a new "Talk about this page" button that instantly shrinks the URL and lets you share it via Facebook and Twitter. On the other side of the location bar, the split preferences buttons have been merged into one to create room for a hide button for the new sidebar.
When you launch the new Flock, it'll ask you to add your Facebook and Twitter login details. You can opt out, but there's no point to Flock if you're not using it for social networking. You must also create a Flock account to take advantage of the social networking tools. This allows you to access your Flock settings from any Flock browser, but it does carry the standard risks of remote "cloud" storage.
Once you're set up, it will automatically open with its new sidebar open. Situated on the right, this sidebar marks the first Chromium sidebar, according to Hardin. More importantly for users, the sidebar becomes the social networking nexus in the new Flock by creating a stream of your friends' updates.
Built mostly in HTML5, the sidebar itself is fairly configurable and feels lightweight. There's a button at the top to hide it, and it moves quickly. The immediate function of the sidebar is to let you read and reply to updates without leaving the page you're on, but it does much more. The friends stream comes with a broad range of filters to make it easy to see only the updates that you need. Not only can you limit it to Facebook only or Twitter only, but you can also narrow each of those streams further. You can slim Twitter down to direct messages only or new tweets only. Facebook can be put on a major diet, too, including limiting Facebook updates to status-only or filtering out wall posts.
Flock supports multiple accounts from the same service, but you're only allowed to be signed into multiple Twitter accounts simultaneously. Users can also create groups of friends, and filter the stream by them, too. Two group titles come with Flock, Best Friends and Co-workers, but the browser leaves it to you to fill them out. This can be done by hitting the Edit button at the bottom of the list, or through the Groups tab on the Flock home page. Filling them out will give you a pretty good hands-on tutorial on how to create your own groups.
There's a strong HTML5 bent to how to you do things in Flock 3. You can drag and drop friends to reorganize them, or click on them and then choose an action. Flock does not yet automatically merge contacts, although Hardin said that was feature is planned for later this summer. For now, you can drag and drop contacts to merge them into a single identity.
In general, the new minor features work well, although that's not always true. Unlike Chrome, Flock supports RSS feeds out of the box. It also lets you Favorite the feed itself, and the new Flock makes sharing those favorites much easier than in other browsers. You can toggle a Favorited item as being public or private, or opt-in to setting your Flock profile page to public to provide a single space for your Favorited items to land on.
The "Talk about this page" button for Facebooking or Twittering a page is a long-overdue browser feature that obviates copying and pasting. The "superbar" approach to the location bar, where default search engine searches are combined with history and bookmark searches, has been bolstered by Flock-specific matches from your friends.
However, it does come with a bucketload of news-related bookmarks in the bookmark bar. It's not clear why and it adds an unnecessary amount of clutter, basically rendering the bar useless unless you clean it out first. Similarly, the unified options menu to the right of the location bar might overwhelm some users.
The beta felt fairly stable over a day and a half of testing, although installing it did feel slower than other browsers. Once loaded, there were no noticeable hang-ups.
Flock has seen impressive growth in the past year, much of it coming from Facebook users, according to Hardin. He said that 87 percent of people who've recommended Flock on Facebook have recommended it to six or more friends, and that it's the most popular Facebook-managing desktop app. The browser is the sixth most-popular browser in Europe, he added, behind the five major players of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. Through May 2010, Flock took about 0.07 percent of the global market, a tiny number but rapidly growing according to the graph.
What this all means for Flock's relationship with Mozilla isn't as clear as you'd expect. Flock will continue to support the Mozilla-based branch of the browser, and anticipates releasing version 2.6 soon. Flock has had a relationship with Mozilla for five years, said Hardin, and he added that no decision has been made yet about severing it.
Originally, Flock's success appeared to be dictated by the willingness of users to take a performance hit in order to gain its robust social networking features. The new Flock 3 beta reduces the overall feature set while providing more focused features, and anecdotal performance hits weren't noticeable. Assuming the browser can maintain its nimble behavior, the big question about Flock is whether users want the utility and distraction of always-on social networking.