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Flock Spreads Wings, Releases Beta Version of New Browser

Posted by inet - 2005-10-22

A new Web browser with a socially conscious streak was released for public tryout Thursday night by a group of 15 young entrepreneurs housed in a garage just off the Stanford University campus in Northern California.
Flock, as it is called, is a Mozilla Firefox-based, freely downloadable open-source browser that aims to get users around the Web quickly and efficiently, but integrates a number of Web services right into the software.

Users can post a Weblog entry, build and share photo collections, and share favorite Web sites (bookmarks are for books, Flock says) with friends—all in one place.

That place is within the browser itself.

In short, Flock (this beta version is called the "Flock 0.5pre Developer Snapshot") aggregates a number of services usually delivered through a variety of separate Web sites and presents them in ways that are intuitive for users.

Flock, distributed under the Mozilla and GNU public licenses, is aimed mostly at bloggers.

Analysts estimate there are 10 million to 15 million sophisticated Internet users writing Internet journals—the number is growing daily—and Flock believes this is a prime target market.

For example, when a user discovers a Web site about which he or she wants to post a comment in a blog, the user just right-clicks on the mouse, which then brings up the Flock blogging wizard (Blog Manager).

The browser software then automatically opens a blank blog entry and adds citations and links for the site that originally caught the user's attention.

Flock also has a built-in RSS integration option, so that users can easily scan news headlines and click through to those pages for more information.

Through a partnership with Vancouver, B.C.-based Flickr, Flock offers the Flickr Topbar, which allow users to drag and drop pictures into a blog post.

Flock also a sort of scrapbook for interesting Web content called The Shelf.

Users can drag interesting URLs, pictures or text snippets from any Web page onto it. From there, these items can be inserted into a blogpost.

Flock uses an open-source search engine (Gecko, which Firefox also uses) that automatically indexes every Web site a user visits for easy rediscovery, and the ability to easily share favorites with friends.

Flock co-founder and CEO Bart Decrem, a veteran of the short-lived Eazel user interface company, which designed a new face for Linux during its 1999-2001 time frame, told Ziff Davis Internet that the company's servers were very busy Thursday night and Friday delivering downloads of Flock, but that the company had no hit counter and couldn't determine exactly how many were downloaded.

"It's been going well so far," Decrem said from the Pop!Tech conference in Maine, where he spoke Friday.

"We have a pretty fancy mirror system that's distributing the downloads transparently.

"Remember, this is a developer's version only, not consumer-grade. We still have a lot of work to do yet, but much of the basic functionality is already there. We're an open-source project after all; we're looking for help from Web developers at this point in getting bugs fixed and some new ideas in the software."

Decrem said that Flock is aiming for Dec. 15 as a release date for Flock's consumer-grade beta.

Flock is working on its business model but is concentrating on getting people to use the browser first, Decrem said.

"We are a venture-capital-funded company, so of course we need to make some money," Decrem said with a laugh.

"We think that if we can provide a service that users love and they have full confidence in, they'll continue to use it.

"In the distribution of the browser is where we can be profitable. We want our users to trust us to not be intrusive (when they browse the Web), so they can do what they want to do online."

For example, Decrem said, Flock is now evaluating various blogging sites as Google's Blogger, MoveableType, WordPress.com and LiveJournal for compatibility.

Flock, if successful in attracting a large number of users, can create a good revenue stream by recommending potential bloggers to one or more of those outside sites.

Flock would receive payment for every user that Flock sends to other sites, Decrem said.

Users also can take their current blogs in sites like those mentioned above and "activate" them in Flock, Decrem said.

"It's amazing what can be done with services like this," Decrem said. "Opera [the Norway-based free browser] was able to do away with all their banner ads recently just by adding a Google search bar.

"Just having a successful Start page and something like what Opera is doing [the Google bar] can be enough to keep the lights on," Decrem said.

Decrem said the company is looking at other features, such as instant messaging, to add for its "consumer-grade" version in December.

"That's an interesting question, messaging and/or e-mail," he said. "We don't want to bundle something like Thunderbird (Mozilla's open-source e-mail client), because they already do a fine job now on their own. But we'll think about how we might add messaging at some point."

Because it is an early beta release, and there are still plenty of bugs, Flock developers are warned in the documentation.

"While we are very excited about what we are doing, we want to make sure that you have been fully forewarned that this browser will crash from time to time and that any settings you save in this browser may quite possibly be erased, lost, or overwritten," they wrote.

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