Flock comes together, releases v1.0

Flock version 1.0 beta is out, and it's a must-have for any social networking junkie.

The Web 2.0 definition of a misanthrope is somebody who doesn't belong to any social networking sites, and by that yardstick I fit the bill. I don't have a MySpace account, nor a Facebook. I do not Twitter except when I've had way too much coffee. I'm not even going to begin to tell you what I think a LinkSpank is, and as far as I'm concerned, Digging requires a shovel and a backyard. I have neither.

So I may not be the best person to evaluate Flock 1.0 beta, a browser built on Firefox that is designed to make interfacing with social networking sites extremely easy. Still, I've got a Flickr account and I blog. Would Flock be useful for a social minimalist such as myself?

Let's do the boring stuff first.

The browser loads pages at what seemed to be the same speed as your regular Firefox. The Quick Search dialog box doesn't like it when you switch search engines. So, if your default is set to Google, you can type in a search term without problems. But if you switch to Amazon.com, it opens up Amazon.com instead of just changing the search engine.

Flock integrates several social networking sites into a browser sidebar. (Credit: Flock)

Most of the extensions I installed worked, but not all. MR Tech Local Install, Tab Mix Plus, and FoxyTunes functioned normally, but the All-in-One Sidebar doesn't. This was disappointing, since AiOS gives Firefox an Opera-style sidebar that I've found to be a big help managing bookmarks, extensions, and other options. Therein lies the excitement.

The reason that AiOS doesn't work probably has a lot to do with Flock's own full-bodied, feature-rich sidebar. This is where most of Flock's action happens, and it's well-integrated. There are nine buttons at the top of collapsible sidebar that makes accessing any of your social networking or frequently used Web sites easy.

The MyWorld button opens up a three-columned page showing your Favorite Sites, Favorite Feeds, and Favorite Media. Sites displays your most recently visited bookmarks, Feeds shows all your RSS sources, including the number of unread stories in each feed and the last time a new feed was updated, and Media organizes Flickr, YouTube, and other media sites that you have accounts in.

The People button turns the sidebar into a nifty way to track all your social networking accounts. Your avatar is displayed on the left, while the right contains links for new messages and new comments. The bottom holds the links to upload new media when applicable and a hotlink to open or close your media stream.

The Media Bar button opens or closes your media stream, so it's easy to regain the screen real estate that it takes up. The Feeds Sidebar button shows all your feeds with headline counts and includes option buttons for customizing reading behavior. Flock comes with subscriptions to CNET News.com, The Onion, ESPN.com, and others. The default read setting is also to mark as read a feed as soon as the headline is visible in the main browser pane, and it automatically subscribes you to your own site feeds.

Flock integrates several social networking sites into a browser sidebar. (Credit: Flock)

The Favorites sidebar opens with a horizontal split. The top half is for local favorites, while the bottom contains your online favorites hosted at Delicious or Magnolia. The Accounts and Services button holds links to the most popular social networking sites, making it easy to set up your accounts and your account information. The account options displayed in the sidebar change depending on which account you're dealing with.

The Web Clipboard steals a great idea from the Netscape Navigator update that came out a few months back. You can drag a URL or image onto the clipboard, where it gets saved. Flock's innovation lets you blog the item with one click, really simplifying the workflow from viewing an item to blogging about it.

The Blog Editor is up next. This comes with links to all the major blogging sites and a help wizard that guides you through setting up access to a self-hosted blog. Last up is a Photo Uploader that lets you drag-and-drop images from your local machine into whatever media-sharing accounts you're logged in to. The drag-and-drop feature works for virtually any site, so not only can you drag something to the Web clipboard, but you can share it on Twitter or MySpace by dragging it to your social networking account avatar in the sidebar.

Flock's appeal definitely lies not only in its integration with Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr, but also in that it's not limited to the major social networking sites. The clean and uncluttered design--despite the incredible volume of features--combined with the ability to adapt to user-defined needs makes it a very strong browser for those who love Firefox but want serious and diverse social networking integration. It will be interesting to see how Flock is received in the coming months and when the project leaves the beta testing grounds, especially since there's no definitive word from Mozilla about its Coop project.

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