Flock, Open source, Technology, Web building

Who is Will Tschumy? Plus: Cardinal Pre-review

Cardinal Web Clipboard, Photobar, Newspaper

According to VP of Engineering Mark Towfiq, Flock has apparently found a new Director of User Experience… a fella named Will Tschumy. On first glance, I can’t seem to produce a Google Resume for him but I’m eager to find out more about him!

While I’m on the topic of Flock, I have to admit that the latest hourlies of Flock’s upcoming public beta (dubbed Cardinal) are starting to looking really pretty thanks to Bryan Bell (and not ironically reminiscent of his other project, NetNewsWire). So, here’s a brief review (based on Milestone 4).

The good news (so far…)

Flock now has my search dropdown design (generously inspired by InquisitorX and Spotlight) as well as the configuration UI I mocked up a while back. I could probably come to live and die in this interface, now that’s it’s finally in the builds (of course, once you’ve executed the search and hit escape, it’s unclear how to reactivate it, not to mention that drag and drop is busted… but it’s still way better than Firefox’s default). Oh, and don’t forget that the search box is now resizable, as in Safari.

Additionally, the last vestige of the topbar concept lives on in the beefed up Photobar, which has had a bunch of new functionality and “friends” functionality added to it, as well as Photostream discovery added to Photobucket- and Flickr-sourced photos in webpages. Oh, that and the Photo Uploader is all new — both improving in some ways and falling down in others. But that’s both due to platform specifics and cross-service design issues (eg. Photobucket doesn’t support Groups whereas Flickr does). One nice addition: large thumbnails!

The QuickSilver-inspired floating Shelf has all but disappeared and re-emerged as the Web Snippets (sorry, no support for Microformats yet! Hopefully Microsoft won’t be the first to ship that functionality!). It is certainly much more accessible in the drop and pop location at the bottom of the browser window, but sadly, with the status bar turned off, vanishes completely. Perhaps it would be nice to have multiple modes of the Web Snippets — docked and undocked?

Blogging in Flock continues to baffle me. There are some things that it’s getting right… and somethings that seem quite foreign to even a semi-veteran blogger like myself.

The location of the Web Snippets bar seems functional, but not if I have more than 5 snippets. If scrolling is going to be the primary means to getting to the snippet that you want, in this case, I might recommend not using the slidey box widget and instead using a regular scrollbar. Some kind of search might be nice or at the very least, a filter by content type. Though I tend to prefer simplicity and a reduction of interface, in this case, managing and accessing your snippets will quickly become a nightmare.

In everything but perhaps the editor itself (I still prefer WordPress’ basic editor, but that’s just me on account of the number of posts I’ve lost on account of wizzbang editors) it seems Flock has made the blogging experience more confusing. That is, unless you only use Categories and are content to use your blog’s admin functionality to create them. Which is fine, but certainly not convenient.

In fact, the reason that we only supported tags in Flock 0.2 but because there is no widely spread API for creating categories in blog software. So relying solely on tags had two benefits: we could use them anywhere you could publish text and we could also leverage them across the entire browser, so that your favorites, your friends and your blog posts (and any other content that might be taggable) could autocomplete from the same store (see 9:41 in this video). But now are not hidden away, tucked invisibly behind an “Advanced” button nestled beneath a category selector (which, of course, will remain empty until you trudge through your blog’s configuration settings. Again, WordPress has Flock beat, availing you of on-the-fly category creation on the composition page.

I am very pleased, however, about the fact that Flock seems to now be saving your posts in your local Documents directory. This was an issue I raised — especially switching and ditching my Flock profile so often — that makes for easy backup of your Drafts and blog posts, not to mention editing in external applications. If Flock is able to take this to its logical conclusion — better and more stable offline editing and composition — I’ll definitely be enticed to give it another go.

So, until blogging in Flock even comes close to MarsEdit in terms of simplicity (or even Performancing in terms of richness), I’ll stick with my own various tools.

The bad news

Flock still doesn’t seem to have a clear conception of a “friend” or even a person. This makes managing my friends across services no easier than it was before and since the interaction model doesn’t seem any more clear, I’m not entirely incented to move over my Flickr or feed-reading activities to Flock. In fact, NetNewsWire (on sale now for $19.95!), the native Flickr website and 1001 take care of me just fine. I’m dying for the day when a browser finally does get the idea of a “person” — someone that I can subscribe to, that I can add to my universal friend or contact lists, with whom I can communicate directly — synchronously or asynchronously… separately, in tandem or with a group of others. This is fundamental to the original Flock vision and what will really set it apart from any other browser (current page, browser history and bookmarks are simply no longer sufficient!).

Apart from that (acknowledging that that one feature is a huge undertaking) the feed reading and Favorite integration seems to completely have fallen apart. We’re back to the aggregator-plus-browser model for consuming syndicating content. This is not where the browser of the next 10 years should be going! Mitigate against the flow of information — bring it together and help me better understand and make use of it! Don’t just make it easier to subscribe, to collate, to stockpile! That’s the problem we already have! That was why I combined Favorites and Feeds — there is no difference, they’re simply different views of the same thing and should be treated as such.

Grr..

Okay okay, I’ll chillax.

There are better per-feed and grouped-feed controls. There is read and unread (though in Milestone 4, that functionality appears broken). You also get 3 views borrowed from NetNewsWire and one new one (Headlines only, Excerpt and Full Articles plus Topic — which clusters seemingly related posts — YMMV).

Oh, and they renamed this feature to “My Newspaper”. Hmm, I won’t say anything else. (Except, “sorry podcasters and vloggers! The revolution will apparently be typeset! Haha! Suckas! …I keed, I keed!).

What else? Well… I think it is time to retire the Favorites Collection selector and come up with something better. It was an interim solution that was useful for picking topbars. With topbars out of the picture, I’m not sure having it around anymore makes sense… especially given the awkward integration with the Star and Tag dialogue. I’ll never abandon my contention that you will always need some kind of subsetting bucket (in Flock’s case, Collections; in Flickr, Sets) for tagged items. But the current implementation just seems fraught with confusion — first I lose subscribed feeds in “My Newspaper” when I search my Favorites and then can’t open websites when I’m in the “Sections” sidebar. I mean, whether subscribing or starring something, I was expressing my intention and my interest in something… why are you dividing my attention between two different data stores and interfaces? Confuuuuuusing!

The take-away

The addition of the search UI is very welcome — and is an improvement I’d love to see ported to Camino and Firefox (okay, I’m biased). I know that we won’t see the same integration with Lucene that makes the integration with Flock so great, but this is something that the Mozilla platform could really use from a UI perspective.

Otherwise, Bryan’s doing a great job on the visuals but I’m still waiting for Flock to blow me away… The product in general seems to suffering from the lack of a clear overall and longterm vision. A number of the pieces in there so far seem to me (for a 0.7 milestone release — that’s 0.3 until 1.0!) disjointed and gimmicky and not part of any complete workflows. In terms of helping me “just get shit done” or “stay aprised of things that I’m interested in”, Flock doesn’t — no better than I’m doing on my own.

And in terms of connecting and communicating with my friends, I’m only seeing hints of moving in that direction. For someone like me, who lives and breathes online social networking, as of now, Flock doesn’t help me cut through all the myriad distractions in order to help me make sense of things faster or more deeply. Instead, it just makes it easier to find new distractions (as already I have 283 “new” photos in the Photobar — which I didn’t even know about before I started using this release!) Check out my comments at 15:29 on this topic.

Anyway, I still have hight hopes for Flock — especially in terms of the original vision of making it easier for people to both publish and consume information across the web. Put it this way: it needs to get built, one way or another. However, the browser that you can download and try out today — which will soon be in beta and undoubtedly represents a lot of people’s effort — has to rediscover its purpose, whose difficulties it wishes to focus its featureset on and redefine how it best believes those problems can be alleviated.

And maybe, just maybe, as this post’s title alludes, Will Tschumy can help flesh out the vision we began with nearly a year ago. I’m looking forward to hearing what his vision entails.

. . .

No doubt more to come, but in the meantime, screenshots from Flockstar Perry Nelson and another review from Flocker Daryl Houston.

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15 thoughts on “Who is Will Tschumy? Plus: Cardinal Pre-review

  1. I dunno, Chris. I’m a skeptic about all this web x.oh stuff, but I’m finding some of the features you poo-poo to be substantially more useful in this release than in any browser I’ve used to date. As my review you link to mentions, the photo and feed notification are major coups. There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course, but these two things alone make me want to use Flock rather than just using it because I’m an employee of the company and feel compelled to do so. I agree with you to a degree that feeds and web sites are just different ways of getting at the same content. Where your brief account here is off the mark is that it doesn’t acknowledge that feeds are essentially a protocol or transport method by which one views the content they’re tied to. So bringing them together as you’ve proposed makes sense on the one hand, but eliminating the need to think of feeds at all (e.g. by removing the tree items you added to the faves manager that people who have no idea what a feed is are no doubt baffled by). Perhaps we should consider not calling the thing a newspaper and changing the tired term “subscribe”, but the model to me seems just terribly useful. Of course, my use patterns and proclivities have always been at odds with the ones you favor, so it’s little surprise that I differ here.

    As for people in the browser, it’s naturally one of our big concerns. I’m enjoying the photo browser and its ability to let me know when friends have posted new photos that I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed because I forget to check, though I take your point about information overload (maybe we should implement something like a degree of interest and allow users to set a notification level?). You’re also fully aware that dealing with the broader issue of people in the browser is vastly more complex than dealing with multiple blogging or photo platforms, both of which have proven to be formidable tasks. It’s taken 10 years for the web to evolve a very clear concept of people and social networks (and even those are disjunctive and in no way integrated across the web itself); give us a couple more months at least to take a swipe at lassoing a few of the thousand or so social networking sites out there to provide an integrated in-browser experience.

    It’s unfair to say that wordpress has Flock beat in the blog editing sphere. When wordpress integrates with MT, livejournal, etc., let’s talk. 🙂

    Glad to see the review in spite of the points I disagree with. Hope all’s going well for you. I hear you’re a busy fellow as always.

  2. Daryl, appreciate the thoughts and conversation.

    To address your first point, as I pointed out, apps like 1001 and NetNewsWire already notify me not only of new photos, but also of new photo comments, new feed items and apps like Endo go one step further integration notification with Growl. So the notification that Flock provides seem completely unwhelming, given what I’m already familiar with on my Mac.

    Second, people in the browser needs to be a central theme of the Flock story — and one that’s addressed openly and candidly. I’ve not heard a peep about it besides random marketing hype! As it is indeed a formidable problem, I hope that, as time permits and effort allows, you guys make an effort to continue the brand of thought leadership around this problem that we started out with.

    As for blog-to-blog integration, that’s hardly something those systems need to perform in order to be useful, whereas a blog editor need, by its very nature, to work with multiple platforms. How good is a phone that only works with one network? Exactly.

    And yes, things are going rather well — despite my overloaded attention span! 😉

  3. The thing that I find valuable about Flock’s news story is that I don’t have to be running another app to get my notifications. I spend maybe 20% of my work time in the browser, 70% in a terminal window, and 10% in an email client. If I can minimize my attention split by bringing more and more web-related things into one of these apps, I’m a happy camper. So I take your point that there are other apps that currently address notifications much better than Flock does, and I hope we improve in that department. Given my limited level of involvement with photo and blogging sites (I loosely keep track of maybe a dozen altogether), the benefit of integration into one app outweights the lightness of the feature set.

    My understanding is that people in the browser will be a central theme for Flock in the future, so stay tuned for that. We just had to get the thing to a semi-usable state before plunging into other ambitious areas of development.

    My point with the blog-to-blog integration comment was that by citing wordpress as a superior editor because it’s got on-the-fly category creation, you’re comparing apples to oranges. WordPress has the advantage here because it defines its own data structure and must adhere only to that structure. You’re in effect saying that a phone that works well on its own network but not at all on others is better than a phone that works at a minimum level on many networks. Which may make it a better phone in some respects, but which is still comparing different things.

    Thanks again for the feedback. I’m rising to Flock’s defense, but I don’t want that to be misconstrued as an inability to take criticism. It’s important for us to get this sort of feedback, and engaging in broader discussion can only help us improve the browser.

  4. Hey Chris,

    I can answer the question for you in the title: Will Tschumy is our new Director of Experience. I bet he’ll be all the more intersted in in your feedback because of the task ahead of him.

    I’m really happy we’re going to have someone at Flock devoted to user experience. It’s my personal opinion that it’s at that level, not features, where users decide which product to use when faced with several choices that are all “good enough”. With IE 7 coming soon (and with as little sense of experience or style as always) we can really set ourselves apart.

    Expect to see a lot of your concerns addressed in the next releases, my friend. I just hope we can live up to your expectations. If you’re anything like me, it’s hard not to get too excited about a product with such potential.

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  7. Hi Chris,

    I really want to integrate microformats into the Web Snippets, but first you need to tell me what feature based on microformats you want. Just using microformats because it’s cool doesn’t really makes sense to me, but if there is a pragmatic reason to use them, just tell me what it is.

    Maybe with the people concept microformats will really make sense in the Snippets. In the meantime, well…

  8. @ Daryl: your percentages are really interesting and telling… I spend probably 35% of my time in Thunderbird and 60% of my time in my browser. Lately I’ve spread maybe 5-10% of that to NetNewsWire (which I’d abandoned while working on Flock). If you’re spending 70% of your time in a terminal window, I can see how pulling all of these notifications into Flock would be valuable — and indeed I think that’s where it needs to go. It would be valuable, I think to do some percentage observations on the folks that you think will ultimately use Flock, however, and determine whether or not it’s common for the MySpace generation to spend that amount of time in a shell. 😉

    And per my point responding to your point about blog-to-blog integration… again, I’ll have to disagree with your characterization of my characterization. WordPress is taking advantage of the same internal functionality that all the other blog software use to create categories (despite having amended the MetaWebBlog API specifically for Flock to allow for this external functionality).

    My point is that we solved the API limitation problem when we implemented tags instead of categories. As we expected, people revolted and we added back categories. Now tags are all but hidden unless you use an “advanced” interface, which, in my estimation makes no sense, since adding a category is certainly an advanced task if you have to go into your blog’s admin UI to create categories to begin with! We had a cross-blog solution to the problem and now it’s submerged beneath layers of UI. In fact the argument I’m making is the opposite of what you say it is: with the current implementation, creating categories works on exactly zero blog platforms without the burden of leaving the Flock editor and visiting your admin options. Hardly a user friendly or efficient option, considering what we’d achieved with tags.

    @ Will: appreciate your response — I do look forward to subsequent releases and what Will might add to the team. I do have high expectations — perhaps higher than most — but I’ll be easily pleased if I see some breakthroughs in clarity in upcoming releases. I don’t doubt that you guys won’t give it your all — and I’m eager to see what kind of processes you adopt to ensure that by one-point-oh your product meets its potential.

    @ Erwan: I’d love to be able to drag an Upcoming URL onto the Web Snippets drawer and then drop it into my Google Calendar and have the event information be prepopulated.

    Oh, and of course I want to be able to copy and paste from the desktop into web calendars.

    For people, I want a browser-based social network that I can move from one site to another — using hCard and XFN.

    I’d also like to organize my blog posts, history and feeds by person, by tag, by location and by event.

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  10. Chris, I take your point about my percentages not likely being representative of the myspace crowd. That said, take my wife, for example. She’s not a myspacer, but she spends a lot of time on the computer each day. She reads Harry Potter fanfic, researches things political and cultural that interest her, and occasionally puts together photo albums of our daughter using kodakgallery. She’s not likely to download some other piece of software to have open (sucking up memory, taking up yet more room in her taskbar, and generally being one other confusing window to muck with), and she enthusiastically agreed that if her browser would just tell her when one of her sites had new content, she’d find it very useful. I think there are probably a lot of people of her ilk out there. You’re right that it’d pay for us to do some surveys to figure out how people do use their browsers and what they think it makes sense to integrate.

    On the tags thing, I don’t think the in-line tag solution was good at all (I presume that’s the implementation you’re referring to). It was a nasty hack, I thought. First, some people didn’t want to link to Technorati (so at a minimu, that should have been configurable). Second, while it sort of tags posts, it doesn’t accommodate grouping by tags in any standardized way because it would require a full-text search to do so, and that’s a very ugly prospect (no tag clouds, no tag counts, no searching by tags, etc.). Our ui was fine, but the technical implementation was very very crappy. I agree that it’d be nice if the tag/category ui weren’t hidden. I presume that’s in part so that we can fetch categories each time a blog post is added to make sure we’ve got any new ones. It’d be nice if we could add tags/categories ad hoc as is now possible in wordpress, but I don’t know that other blogging systems allow that, so we’re probably shackled. I suspect your zeal for the old tagging mechanism is for the eye-candy of the tag pillbox thing. If we could bring that back to the front of the workflow and make it add categories ad hoc to whatever blogging platform a given person uses, I think we’d be in great shape. I just don’t think the server-side technology is there in the APIs for all the platforms we need to support, so we’re forced to fall back to the lowest common denominator.

  11. I’m all about notification when new content arrives — I mean, RSS, Atom and hAtom are a boon for keeping up with what’s going on. The problem is that the interfaces for managing this information sucks and Flock barely has touched the surface of what’s possible. I don’t believe that the world simply needs another feed reader. It needs something more — something that gets dynamic content so that, over time, as you build up to 300 feeds, you’re able to manage it smoothly, efficiently in order to make sense of it.

    A single source notification or an unread count does not do justice to the complexity of the information that we need to be able to take in and consume!

    As for the tags thing, I’ll boil it down: if you’re going to allow me to either a) categorize or b) tag my content I need to do so at the point of creation (as I can do with photos in Flock). That blogging works differently makes absolutely no sense.

    If it’s a technical problem, fix it. There aren’t that many blogging APIs and if WordPress leads, others will follow. It’s far to valuable (and simple!) a feature not to get added to the APIs.

    It’s not about shiny tag pillboxes — in fact those never worked consistently! — it’s about being able to apply some kind of metadata from within Flock without having to venture into the backend guts of your blogging software. Even if the technical implementation of tags sucked, it was a solution to this problem, and as far as I’m concerned, not being able to create categories within Flock is comparitively a major regression, technical implementation be damned! The lowest common denominator is simply too low for Flock’s lofty ambitions!

  12. I totally agree on the tagging thing. Ad hoc tag creation is one of the things I really like about our favorites, though it’d be better with auto-complete based on my previous tags and perhaps with some suggestions based on content. So I think we’re on the same page there now. So I agree with you, but I suspect there are still limitations beyond our current control. Perhaps “lowest common denominator” was a bad phrase choice. Let’s modify it to “most practical common denominator, given our target audience.” If livejournal doesn’t support tagging and they’re 40% of our user base (I don’t know that they are; I just made that number up), it’d be foolish of us not to support the LJ blogging protocol in order to cater to, say, a 5% segment that uses more bleeding-edge server technology.

    The notifications thing is probably a matter of differences in workflows. We’ll never make everybody happy (which doesn’t mean we should give up on trying). I find that the current functionality greatly streamlines my browsing, though I admit that I’m not your typical user (nor are you). That said, I readily acknowledge that there must be cool ways of further enhancing the experience. It’d be neat if the browser remembered what content I most frequently read or spent the most time reading and floated that to the top, or gave me the occasional teaser to my neglected content, for example. You no doubt have a million much more dazzling ideas than that in mind (and three-year-old flickr mockups to back them up). 🙂

  13. 😉

    I’m glad we could come to some understanding! As usual, our opinions are not terribly opposing when it comes down to what we’d like to see offered… in fact, you nailed one of the reasons I’m so gung-ho about tags: universal tags across the browser — for blog posts, favorites, feeds, photos and anything else! Right now you have this weird category system that only applies to blogs… how does that help me organize my online life — it’s totally disjoint!?

    And yeah, you’re right — neither of us are “usual” users today… but tomorrow kids are going to be a lot more like me, except worse.

    They will have 10,000 Flickr, delicious, upcoming, myspace, facebook and on and on buddies. Just wait and see. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

    And Flock is being created based on *today’s* behavior, hell man, might as well go back to building one-off extensions!

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