New Ideas Worth Ignoring

by John E. Simpson

Call me a Luddite, but this strikes me as a ghastly addition to the Web's arsenal. (Link via Slashdot, which is probably why -- right now -- trying to see anything beyond that ridiculous home page times out.)

Because I can't see anything else about it, I can't comment specifically on any Flock "features." (If you likewise are locked out, you might get a good sense of what to expect from the Slashdot comments.) In a way, though, I don't need to see anything specific: the whole idea stinks.

Yes, competition is important. Yes, the more players in any given arena, the more "interesting" the subsequent face-offs. No, I don't believe Firefox or (God knows) IE or Opera have solved all the problems of Web browsing. But I can't help thinking, "What are the Flock developers thinking?" A clue is offered by the Business Week article referenced in the Slashdot post:

Flock's browser is built specifically for a new, emerging generation of Web users, one that isn't satisfied passively browsing media online.

Flock hopes to turn the browser into a dashboard for collaborating, blogging, sharing photos, reveling in a raft of other group activities that have recently caught fire online.

Among the Flock design goals, evidently, are these:
  • Simplified blogging
  • Simplified bookmarking
  • "...serve less as a window into static Web content than as a customizable conduit for participatory Web services, from Flickr to to the collaborative online encyclopedia Wikipedia."
Business Week also reports:
Even in raw test mode, Flock and its blogging tools in particular are drawing rave reviews from tech-savvy users. "Pure magic," says J. Michael Arrington, general partner at Archimedes Ventures, who co-writes the blog TechCrunch. "It's a beautiful application, and they're a bunch of smart guys." Even Robert Scoble, Microsoft's most famous blogger, has called the Flock browser "awesome."
None of which, per se, renders the whole flocking thing uninteresting. No, my objection is more along the lines of: does the world really need another browser?

Especially objectionable, in my eyes, is that key members of the Flock team evidently participated in Firefox's development. So, then, uh, why not extend Firefox? Why make it likely that users are going to get even further confused by the browser choices available to them?

And why -- please, please, why -- would these people build a browser (and a Web site) that apparently does not feature standards compliance as a critical driving force?

So, am I nuts?


2005-10-05 17:05:43
I disagree
Theres a very good reason not to extend Firefox, to avoid confusion. Too many blatant features means too much interface means too much confusion for new users who just want to do simple web tasks, which is most users. Firefox is very good for most users, it might even be a tad too much for some. There has to be a line, MOST web users don't blog, MOST web users don't even know what is let alone care at all about it. Adding specific features to Firefox for specific web applications and paradigms will muddy the water.

I don't feel that this will add to browser market confusion either. I doubt that such a browser will even be on the radar for most people. Most people who don't have the technical prowess or inclination to sort out what browser to use, simply use the one their told to use, even Firefox users, their either told by their geek friend, their IT department or the media, that Firefox is the way to go, Thusly they go that way. They are not likely to be told to use this emergent product unless they swim in the circles where it will matter in which case, they won't be confused.

The development of this new product will not detract from Firefox's development either because features that may develop in it that would be applicable to MOST people could be grafted onto Firefox and the same goes the other way too.

2005-10-06 06:20:19
RE: I disagree

You're absolutely right in your description of most Web users -- non-bloggers, unaware of, etc.

But there's one thing Firefox extensions have going for them: you only need to add the ones you want. That's all I meant by my "why not extend Firefox?" comment. In Flock, evidently, they intend to build in just about every feature which has received more than a modicum of media attention in the last year or two. Which may be a way of garnering attention in its own right; it just seems NOT to be a good way to approach development of a large software project, y'know?

(Aside: I did finally get to see the Flock "extensions" page after posting the original blog entry last night. So I know they recognize they can't build in everything. But the laundry list of things they do plan to include seems particularly slanted to features with the most buzz, and damn whether it makes a whole lot of sense to bundle them together.)

I could go along with the "Flock is clearly intended just for geeks and their immediate circles of influence" POV if the Flock folks seemed to be positioning the product that way -- like an experimental, leading-edge tool. But in the absence of anything to go on other than the Business Week article, sadly, it sounds like they hope (even if it's just a best-case scenario) to make it a widespread commercial success. So although it will disappoint the developers, I hope you're right that only the "in" crowd will pick it up.

2005-10-06 07:38:07
i disagree for other reasons
if someone builds a browser built for specific functionality and pulls it off well, then users will use it for just that. rss readers usually have some sort of lightweight browser in them, but i've never used one as my primary browser - too many mainstream sites break in them.

if someone makes a new browser and it doesn't follow the specs but provides a fantastic user interface, then they've at least started off on a good note. to really make it, they'll need to at least mostly support the current specs, but (and this feels strange as i consider myself something of a standards advocate) they don't really have to in order to get some market share.

omniweb can't quite handle a few technologies and current specs, but provides such a good interface that many people not only will use it and accept the occasional broken site, but pay money for it as well.

how many major choices of browsers do we have? why does competition mean bad things?

i have absolutely no interest in what i've heard about this new one so far, but i will certainly argue for their right to make it how they choose.

2005-10-06 09:51:56
RE: i disagree for other reasons

Well, sure. I hope I didn't imply (I certainly don't believe) that (a) the Flock builders shouldn't be allowed to build it however they want, or (b) users shouldn't acquire it, however much it ultimately costs, if it does what they want.

Coincidentally, someone on the Win32-MySQL mailing list that I subscribe to just posted this comment, in a discussion about simplified UIs:

Smart wizards make many people think that this (this i mean, software, administrating servers/databases) is done by 1 or 2 clicks, who ever configure this should know it from the inside and from the outside.
This isn't to argue that "smart wizards" (like, say, their counterparts as built into Flock) are inherently a bad idea. The more people who add content to the Web, the better the Web is. It's just to say that few users can make the leap to understand that a one-click or other slick UI gizmo often hides the complexity underlying the interface -- but that they need to understand the underlying complexity in order to make their contribution MEANINGFUL.

I'm aware -- and troubled -- that this comes dangerously close to elitism, like, "Only let the smart people use the powerful systems, don't let the riff-raff in the door." But jeez, I think it's inescapable: one major contributor to the Web's overall value is exactly that there's a certain threshold of knowledge required to add to its content. If the number of content providers were to double, the signal-to-noise ratio might remain much the same as it is now... but there'd be so much MORE of it to wade through and sort out, y'know? And in the meantime, it doesn't seem as though the tools for discovering content will keep pace with the tools for creating it.

(This is straying pretty far afield from the original post; maybe it ought to be spun off on its own.)