Flock founder hopes new browser will fly with users

A startup called Flock is offering a new browser that includes contemporary features for leveraging the social aspects of the Web.

Startup Flock has released a Firefox-based browser meant to enhance the user experience by incorporating some of the Web's most social features, such as file sharing, RSS (really simple syndication) feeds and Web logging, according to the company's co-founder.

Bart Decrem, who in the past helped develop the business model for the Mozilla Foundation and its Firefox browser, is chief executive officer (CEO) and a founder of Flock, which is based in Palo Alto, California, and plans to deliver what Decrem calls a "social browser" that will let users take advantage of the full next-generation Web experience.

"The Web has evolved very dramatically from a big library to a library, shopping mall and increasingly a social space where people exchange information, communicate with each other and share information," Decrem said Friday from Maine, where he was attending the Pop!Tech 2005 conference.

The evolution of Web browsers, however, have not been as significant, he said. Though Firefox is different because it puts the user experience first and offers more security in comparison to Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), current browsers are still very similar to 10 years ago, Decrem said. IE faced little challenge in the browser market until recently and so did not evolve much in the way of feature innovation.

Flock hopes to change that by integrating more functionality into the browser, giving users easier access to the Web's social aspects. The developer preview of Flock Browser available Friday showcases the inclusion of the "low-hanging fruit" of that experience, according to Decrem.

The preview includes technology for more efficient bookmarking and bookmark-haring through the online service del.icio.us; automated RSS feed sign-up and organization of feeds; and technology that "takes the headaches out of blogging," he said, such as the ability to highlight text on a Web page and immediately have it appear in a new entry in a user's blog.

Flock also will support podcasting, and photo- and other file-sharing technologies as it evolves, Decrem said. Developers are putting out a new build of Flock Browser every one to two days, with the hope of having a consumer-ready beta of Flock Browser available before Dec. 15, he said.

Michael Gartenberg, for Jupiter Research, said Flock's focus on offering features that are popular with the most contemporary Web users -- those who are more apt to switch browsers -- will likely put pressure on Microsoft, as well as bite the hand that is feeding the startup, Mozilla's Firefox.

"This seems to be about a feature-driven Web experience for users who are interested in going beyond just generic browsing," he said. "Microsoft had enough pressure responding to Firefox, much less responding to something that adds even more features than the generic browsing experience."

Still, though consumers today have more choice of browsers between Firefox, Apple Computer's Safari for the Macintosh OS and Opera than they have had in years, it remains to be seen whether the organizations that own those browsers will make any money on them, Gartenberg added.

Like its technology, Flock's business model also reflects the Web's evolution, Decrem said. The company will offer its browser free and plans to partner with companies such as Yahoo and Google to include search boxes that hook up with their search engines, and with other online services such as Amazon.com and Six Apart's Typepad blog-hosting service.

In a partnership scenario with a company such as Amazon.com Inc., Flock would build a link to Amazon.com right in the browser and earn commission fees if users use that link to go onto the site and make a purchase, he said. Flock also will offer subscriptions to blog-hosting sites for users who lack such subscriptions, and will earn fees from companies such as Typepad for sending users to such services.

However, Decrem said Flock wants to be careful not to try to pigeonhole users into certain services on the Web and hopes to provide them with as much choice as possible.

"We believe there are additional opportunities for us to make money and to do so in a way that respects users' privacy and doesn't affect the user experience by always giving users choice," he said. "You ought to be able to use whatever blogging platform you like, whatever photo-sharing services you like."

At the same time, Flock will offer default services, such as Typepad and several others for blogging, in case users haven't already made decisions about which services to use, he added.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

IDG News Service
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