Decrem and a small cadre of programmers in Palo Alto, California, have spent this summer quietly readying Flock, an open-source browser, for an early October beta launch. Several members of the team, including Decrem, hail from the Mozilla Foundation, which produced the Firefox browser upon which Flock is built.
Flock advertises itself as a “social browser,” meaning that the application plays nicely with popular web services like Flickr, Technorati and del.icio.us. Flock also features widely compliant WYSIWYG, drag-and-drop blogging tools. The browser even promises to detect and authenticate all those user accounts automatically. It’s a clear attempt to be the browser of choice for the Web 2.0 user.
It’s no coincidence that the buzz has built rapidly to a rolling boil. Blogger and tech pundit Robert Scoble simply calls it “awesome.” Given the recent swell of anticipation surrounding Flock, the preceding stealth period seems quaint by contrast. Since an August demo at Bar Camp, enthusiastic blog posts have amounted to love letters in their enthusiasm. But why?
“The browser has not evolved all that much,” Decrem says. “The basic concept or vision has not changed.” He says the web was until recently conceptually conceived as a big library, a collection of documents to search and consume. Browsers were all about navigation. Now, he notes, “Web 2.0 is a stream of events, people and connections.” A better browser is one that will understand this new user environment.
Recently, Firefox has become, for many, the multi-platform browser of choice. Popular extensions like Greasemonkey have given users unprecedented control over their browsing experience. But combining separately developed, often-updated extensions can make Firefox unstable.
Boris Mann, a Flock tester and admirer, claims that it “takes the best-of approach. It takes Greasemonkey and other power-browsing tools and it makes them work. And their genius is sticking with Firefox at the rendering level.”
Decrem notes that Flock will not attempt to compete with Firefox, which he helped launch last year. “Open source is an important part of our DNA,” he adds. Yet, browsers are still “too inert” for Decrem’s tastes. The Flock team speaks of moving back to the original vision of Tim Berners-Lee, that the web should be a two-way experience. “There are lots of opportunities to innovate the browser client. We are receiving a lot of interest as we plant those seeds.”
The clamor suggests that there is considerable interest in a beefier browser. And while Flock’s initial audience is clearly power users, Kris Krug of Bryght sees it as “a Web 2.0 on-ramp” that will draw more people to social software, blogging and photo sharing.
“We are not trying to do Firefox with five more features. We are trying to solve a very specific problem — yet it’s a problem commonly experienced by many users,” says Decrem.
Rumor has it that Flock will soon announce key partnerships around its search, bookmarking and blogging tools. While the Flocksters experimented with their own hosted bookmark service, “we concluded we’re not an online services company,” says Decrem.
Scoble thinks Flock is just the beginning of integrated web applications. In a weighty compliment, he draws a comparison to Microsoft Office, which in the 1990s succeeded in migrating users of separate spreadsheet, word-processing, database and presentation programs to a single, bundled product.
“Today we’re using too many different services to share our stuff on the internet,” says Scoble. “Blogging, photo sharing, wikis, maps, podcasting (and) video blogging are all separate services. They probably will be joined in one system with common user interfaces.”
Flock may or may not become the Office of the web. But, for now, it’s one of a kind, at least as far as buzz goes.