Flock still trying to take flight

Flock announced its intention, over two years ago, of making the web browser more social — like a flock of penguins, it never got off the ground. Two years later, the Palo Alto, Calif. company has a bigger set of wings, a 9-month late version “0.9.”

Big questions remain, though, as to whether this will be enough.

The browser already gives people a way to save text and images of Web pages to a clipboard, save these for direct posts to blogs, and collect photos and share them with friends on Flickr. The newer version takes these features a step further.

For example, Flock has added video to its “media stream,” which until now had let users run pictures from their Flickr and Photobucket accounts atop their Flock browser window. You can run videos from your YouTube or AOL’s TruVeo account.

It also wants to offer a personalized home-page feature like NetVibes and PageFlakes. Its new “MyWorld” start page allows users to see a list of their favorite bookmarked sites, rss feeds and photo and video files on a single page. It lacks the depth and breadth of the market leaders’ offerings, such as the ability to embed widgets.

The new version has more new features than we have space for (the company lists the new features here; a review here).

The features above are a couple of the ways that Flock helps one manage things like photos, videos, rss feeds, favorite and web pages. Firefox, by contrast, simply offers add-ons that do the same things. The advantage is that people can customize their Firefox browser with only the add-ons that they want to use.

Firefox counts 85 million users across all of its versions, and over 370 million downloads since its 1.0 — compared to Flock’s 1.5 total downloads to date (caution: while the number of active Firefox users is clearly orders of magnitude larger than Flock’s, we don’t have reliable numbers on either).

The big question for Flock: How many people can actually be bothered to download a new browser, outside of the early adopter crowd? Even Firefox is getting bloated. There are many reports of it performing poorly on Macs, especially when burdened with add-ons. This has led some (including this author) to switch to the fast and elegant Camino browser designed specifically for Mac. Oh, and did we mention that most people on the web are still using Internet Explorer, and to a lesser extent Safari?

There appears to be a sad tale of internal struggle here. One blogger from the Flock developer community posted last month that the company has been in “a pressure cooker environment in need of an outstanding product release.” Two of the founders have left within the last year, and the venture-backed company’s board brought in a new CEO, Shawn Hardin from LA.

He’s a media veteran, with experience at Yahoo, AOL Broadband and NBC.

He says the market has changed in the last two years, with millions more people using Flickr, YouTube and social networks for hours every day. He thinks Flock is still well-positioned because it is “the first and only social web browser.” The company doesn’t want a billion users — it’s aiming for “75 to 100 million users,” Hardin says, the ones that use the most “social media.” He’s gearing the company up for a big marketing campaign in the fall, releasing version 1.0 for when the kids come back to school, one of the things he told us he was brought in to do.

Meanwhile, the company makes money from a deal with Yahoo by displaying Yahoo’s search engine as the default option within the Flock browser. It gets paid an average of more than $3 per user per year by Yahoo, Hardin says. He estimates that Google pays Firefox at least $2 per user per year for running its search engine as the default. This makes some serious money for the taxable (for-profit) subsidiary of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation: over $55 million in the 2005 fiscal year.

blog comments powered by Disqus