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.
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 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.
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