Even with the advent of tabbed browsing, which allows you to keep multiple Web pages open in the same window, Web multitasking can be a pain. You have to constantly click back and forth among tabs if they contain fast-changing material you check often, like the status of your friends in social-networking services, or updates to news feeds.
Trying to share information with people on your Web-based networks can introduce another layer of digital jujitsu. It can be awkward to snag a photo or a snippet of text from one Web site and send it to a friend in a social network on another, or post it to your own blog.
But I’ve been testing a little-known Web browser that attempts to solve these problems. It’s called Flock, and it bills itself as “the social Web browser.” I found that it worked well, but it isn’t for everyone, and it has some important downsides.
Flock is a modified version of the excellent Firefox Web browser that tacks on some special features for social networkers and bloggers. It’s available free at flock.com in essentially identical versions for Windows, Mac and Linux.
Flock adds a special vertical “sidebar” at the left of the browser that keeps your social networks, photo sites or news feeds visible at all times, regardless of what page you’re viewing in the main browser window.
For instance, with Flock, you can see that you have a new friend request in Facebook, or that a pal has posted new photos in Flickr, without clicking away from reading this column in the main browser window.
But, wait: There’s more. With one click, you can display a horizontal “media bar” across the top of the browser containing thumbnails of all of a friend’s photos or videos from a social-networking or photo site, again without changing what’s in the main browser window.
These two special bars also allow you to take action. For instance, you can just drag images and text from Web pages into the sidebar to share them with friends listed there. And any photo on the media bar can be quickly emailed or posted to a blog.
There’s also a “Web clipboard,” which can save any text, image or link from a site in the main window by merely dragging it to the Flock sidebar. Once an item is in this clipboard, it stays there until you delete it.
Flock has its own built-in blog editor, which allows you to quickly compose, edit and publish blog posts containing interesting items you encounter on the Web. And it creates a special personal Web page, called My World, which combines your social-networking updates, news feeds and photos.
I found Flock productive and fun to use. I tested its special sidebar with my Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and YouTube accounts, and with my favorite news feeds. I also used another of Flock’s features, which let me check my Gmail and Yahoo Web-mail accounts without navigating to their main pages. And I published several posts from within Flock to a test blog I maintain. All of this worked as promised.
In my tests, I used the latest edition of Flock, version 2.0, which is built on the new Firefox 3.0 browser. Even though this latest iteration of Flock is still in beta status, I found it to be quite stable.
But Flock isn’t for everyone, and it has some significant drawbacks. For one thing, you’d need a fairly large or high-resolution monitor to accommodate the Flock sidebar and media bar without reducing the size of the main browser window so much as to require too much scrolling. Even with a big or high-res screen, you will see fewer toolbar links and browser tabs than normally.
And, Flock has a busy, even frenetic, look that can be distracting and annoying. So many things are going on at once that it can be hard to concentrate on the main attraction: the Web page you are reading in the main window.
Also, while Flock does indeed spare you from clicking back and forth as often among tabs in your browser, it doesn’t entirely eliminate clicking around. Its sidebar can display only one type of information at a time — social networks and photo-sharing sites in one view, news feeds in a second, the clipboard in a third, and Web bookmarks in a fourth. So you’ll have to click the sidebar’s own controls fairly often to check all of these, or keep going to the special My World page in the main window.
Finally, Flock works with only certain social networking, photo-sharing and blogging services. While it does support most of the main ones, there are some glaring omissions. MySpace isn’t yet on the list, though it’s expected to be added next month. But Hotmail, Windows Live Spaces and SmugMug, among others, are missing. And it doesn’t support any instant-messaging services at all.
Flock does a good job at the tasks it sets for itself, but I would recommend it for only the heaviest and most impatient social networkers. For most others, Flock is overkill.