The other day, Derek at work introduced me to Flock, a new… ahem, let me prepare my marketing voice… “social browsing experience.” I’d seen the signs a few months ago, floating around the web design blogosphere (have I ever mentioned how much I despise that term?), but in true “Web 2.0” fashion, details were scarce.
For all the mystique and wonder, Flock is simply a browser—not even a new one, to be honest; it is derived from the tangled root system that is the Mozilla family. Not a bad place to start, I’ll give them that… they could have gone the pathway of so many pointless browsers out there and layered themselves atop the atrocity that is Internet Explorer, touting themselves as “new and revolutionary” because they somehow managed to finagle tabs and an ad blocker into the mix. No, Flock are smarter than that (speaking of Flock the project, not Flock the product); they’ve created quite a compelling offering in their browser, if only for the blogging/geek world.
Flock is a browser integrated with many of the current Web 2.0 buzzwords and products: Del.icio.us, Flickr, and everyone’s favourite passtime (though, admittedly, not part of the whole Web Two Oh schema), blogging. Derek’s already written up a fairly thorough, if slightly technical, article on Flock’s features, so I won’t bore you with the details. I will, however, impart a few thoughts and experiences.
Having attempted to integrate several Web 2.0 apps (I’m already sick of typing that term, and it’s not even used in the general public… wait until it gets driven into your skull like “bling bling” and “podcast” have) into this site, I’m quite aware of the uncertainty inherent in such a proposition. Sites go down. Some of them, a lot. Building an application whose feature-set is dependent upon outside variables is a risky proposition indeed. For example, Flock has a rather slick looking method for blogging about a website you are currently viewing… all within the browser, without leaving the site. Amazing, yet frustrating for me. I have been unable to use any outside application for blogging for quite some time now, as I believe my current (and if things keep up, my soon to be former) host disabled support for the xmlrpc protocol. So, as cool as blogging from Flock would be, I simply can’t do it… and there is nothing the developers can do to fix such a bug: it’s out of their scope of influence and control. Sure, I realise the problem is between my host and I, but that doesn’t fix the fact that a touted feature is now useless and broken for me. Other features depend on much larger, well known sites (flickr, del.icio.us), but they, too, are not immune to chaos. Look to the right of this site, and you’ll see a current music section that doesn’t show you anything current at all. This feature of my site depends upon AudioScrobbler/Last.fm to display my recent tracks… however, AS proved to be so unstable and frequently non-existant that the feature broke on my site, and unknown to me at the time, it simply broke my site. Imagine, then, if Flock becomes hugely popular, and is bought up by, say, Google or Ebay or some other huge internet company on a Web Two Oh buying bender. Let’s say, for the sake of my example, Google bought it (even though they are supposedly already developing their own “gBrowser”). Google and Yahoo are, quite obviously, competitors. Yahoo now owns Flickr. One of Flock’s main features depends on Flickr. Yahoo decides they don’t like providing a service for their competitor’s product. Bam… no more Flickr for Flock users.
Now, I’m not saying this is going to happen, or that such a problem would be unavoidable or un-fixable… but it leads you to wonder about variables. Variables can be very useful and quite powerful, but if you aren’t entirely sure what you’re doing, and don’t plan for the worst, a variable can bring your program to a crashing halt. With such inherent variables in the Flock feature system, you can’t help but wonder if they’re in for a bumpy ride.