Termie flying the coop

Cubicle Surfing
Photo by Jesse Andrews.

Man, should I even bother mentioning that Andy “Termie” Smith and my ex-roommate is leaving Flock when he makes fun of me in his parting post?

Well, whatever… if I can’t get over my self-aggrandizement, I guess I never will. Fooey on my self-importance.

Welcome to the pool of sumblimators, Termie, and here’s to beating me out at the top of the Google pile of search results announcing the termination of our prior employment.

A lesson from game design

Spore preview
When I was at Flock, one of the things that I advocated for most vehemently was to take more inspiration from game design — to look to influences in , World of Warcraft, the The Sims and others to come up with novel approaches to socially browsing the web.

Well, Aaron Ruby, writing for NextGen, captures exactly what I wanted to add to the open source design process:

And that’s what game designers do: they create objects that invite play.

The Microsoft Office model of interface design no longer applies; rows of buttons simply aren’t fun and because they’re not fun they actually reduce focus and productivity.

Though there will continue to be a need for transitional browsers, I’m looking to games like Spore to set the stage for next generation interaction models and work/time flows.

A Flock podcast, changes therein; related tools

Dauphne -- the YouSpaceFlock browserGeoffrey “Fredo” Arone seems to be stepping up as the public voice of Flock now that he’s in the position of Chief Strategy Officer and Bart‘s taking on the more abstract role as chairman.

In a recent interview with Richard MacManus, Fredo talks about Flock someday becoming a mainstream browser alongside the likes of Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Not sure what I think about that — (sure, ok, whatev) — since I think Flock’d be wiser to try to build to an extremely dedicated niche audience and then work outwards from there — preferring slow but constant iterative growth, like the iPod found… as opposed to Tech Crunch boom-and-bust sign-up and vacate cycles betacoms have come to know and despise.

It’s good to hear, however, that with Erikka Arone, Apple’s former iPod Product Manager in the Worldwide Product Marketing Group, coming onboard as Flock’s Senior Director of Marketing, they’ll have some real experience in their court to help tailor whatever strategy they adopt.

Meanwhile, Flock will suffer another bummer of a loss this September when Lloyd, heretofore Flock’s most exceptional QA Lead and unofficial staff photographer, will migrate back home to Canada. Mum’s the word on his future plans, but at the least, it’s clear that the OSM looks after its own.

. . .

Oh, and for those interested, I found a couple stand-alone Mac apps that offer similar features to those already found in Flock:

Note that these don’t suggest that Flock’s a bad idea (it’s not), it’s important to be aware of what else is out there that might provide opportunities to learn from.

Flock 0.7.3 lands

Flock 0.7.3

Simple maintenance release with the following changes:

  • Photo

    • Photobucket sub-album and Flickr set browsing and uploading. Allow users to refine photos displayed in photobar by album.
    • Several bug fixes for photobucket and flock integration
  • Extensions

    • Allow extensions that haven’t been modified for flock to be installed. Users will be warned that the extension has not been tested with flock but will be allowed to proceed. Note that this feature has been partially available since 0.7.1. If you have installed unmodified extensions you will see a warning, “This update will cause some of your extensions and/or themes to stop working until they are updated.”, during the upgrade which can be ignored.
  • Spread flock feature. Allow flock users to opt into adding a flock tagline to photos dragged from the photobar or the from the desktop into a text area
  • Setup (First Run) experience enhancements

    • Bug fixes, better discovery of current configuration and UI treatments
    • Added option to allow anonymous statistics to be gathered during initial setup. This will allow Flock to further streamline and simplify the setup experience.
  • Other

    • Added OPML export to My News
    • Blog Editor fix for editing text in source view window
    • Updated to use new deli.cio.us API

I’m still waiting on atomic saves in the blog editor before I use it (still composing directly in WordPress with Camino) and I’d love to see a full-screen slideshow mode in the Flickr Photo Topbar, but the product continues to improve. Go get it.

Browsers, the future thereof

Doug Engelbart

When I first realized the web as a medium — like artists found clay — I was someone who built websites. I grew up an artist, dabbling with pastels, sculpture, painting; I took lessons in all the classics. Back when I started out on the web, well, I threw my paint against the wall, watched it dry differently; tried watercolor and salt; mixed in color pencil. I created on someone else’s canvas, beholden to the whims of the Internet Explorers and Netscapes.

It wasn’t until I grew frustrated trying to create a publishing and composition tool for regular folks in CivicSpace that I realized that it wasn’t that the brushes or paint that I was using that were flawed — but that the canvas itself could be streched so much further. And so when the opportunity arose to go work on and set the direction of Flock, I jumped at the chance. The thought that I could take a number of the ideas on content creation that I’d been trying to implement in regular webpages into the browser itself was too irresistible to pass up.

And that’s how it started for me — working first on the side of web content developers — and then on the side of the actual rendering context and application. I doubt that I was qualified to work on either, but that’s besides the point, since that’s where I found myself (and artists worth their weight are hardly what I would call experts).

So now, a few months out after leaving Flock, a few heady announcements about microformats, a new Firefox Beta to toy with, a number of webkit-based apps to ponder over and an emerging identity standard coming to the fore, I’m starting to see the future materialize in front of me. From where I sit though, there is a lack of clarity as to what it’s all about, what’s really going on and what’s missing in between to glue it all together and — perhaps most importantly — a sense for what we can learn by focusing on the negative space of our current situation.

I’ve been reading about Doug Engelbart lately and the stuff he was doing in the 60s with his Augment system. He’s now collaborating with my buddy Brad Neuberg on a system he calls “Hyperscope”. I can’t help but see disjoint parallels between his ideas and what’s emerging today. Simply put, there is no grand theory or unifying concept that will bring it all together, just as there’s no single design for a tree — in fact, it takes many to make a forest, and we’re only now beginning to see the emergence of the forest in spite of the individual trees that seem oh-so-important.

And we don’t even have the benefit of LSD. Man, how are we to escape what we already know to imagine what’s possible? Oh well.

Anyway, lemme get down to brass tacks, coz I can tell you’re getting bored already. I almost am, striking out at some kind of point out of this rambling.

When I was at Web 2.0™ (I think) I mentioned to Jason Fried — as I’ve done to others since — my desire to have a webwide conversation about what the future of web browsers should look like. This was the work that I thought I’d started at Flock, but the reality is that they’re a business and not an academic institution and need to pay their employees (a harsh reality that I’m now realizing owning my own company and having a payroll). I left because of this — and maybe for other personal reasons — but primarily because my vision for the future wasn’t exactly compatible with where they needed to go in the short term. Hey, bills, remember?

Anyway, let me put it out there: I don’t get where Firefox is going. I don’t think it’s going anywhere actually. I think it’s strong, it’s stable, it’s a great platform. But it’s not innovative. It’s not Quicksilver. It was a response to IE and now IE7 will come out, co-opt everything that makes Firefox great or interesting and we’ll run through another coupla years of stagnation. Blah.

There is a solution though — you’d be surprised maybe, but you can find it in Safari and I’m dead serious about this. The number of webkit-based apps being released is growing by the week. Pyro, Gcal, Webmail, Hiker (thanks Josh!). There was talk about the future of the merged Internet-desktop as, quite clearly, this is where we’re going — but the choice of user agent is sadly coming down to facility over featureset or robustness. Why isn’t this happening with XUL Runner or Firefox (you figure it out)?

At Flock, this is where I saw things going. I didn’t see Flock as a monolithic package of integrated apps like Netscape or Office — bundled up with unmaintainable software sprawl… but with a solid underlying platform that these secondary apps could be built upon (yeah, Lucene, yeah, Microformats, yeah IM, yeah video and audio and all the rest). Speaking RSS, microformats, Atom and other syndicated content natively, you’d be able to universally star anything for later sharing… you’d be able to upload anything… be able to have any AJAX’d experience offline with a super-cache that could handle the sporadic network connectivity that most of the world puts up with (or that we put up with when we travel). And hell, with OpenID, we’ve even got a way to sync it all up together. Toss in a platform that is built on and around people people people and you’ve got something to really take us forward into the next evolution of Things As We Know Them™.

I wanted Firefox to be my Chariot, Flock to be my Sun.

Such as it is with Open Source, trying to inspire end-user interface innovation is often a losing battle.

(As an aside in parentheses, I think this is biological; I met Tara’s 2-year-old niece this weekend and she mimicked everything we did; thus it’s developmental and inherent — yet the problem remains: how do we bring the majority of user interface innovation to the open source space?)

So anyway — Safari; webkit apps… the future.

For the benefit of everyone involved, whether Mozilla, Flock, Microsoft, Opera, and so on implements any of this stuff… there needs to be some major advancements made in browser technology, both for normal humans and for web… um… painters. This stuff, seriously, is still way too opaque, and way too obscure for most humans for whom “delicious” still means “tastes good”. I want to have that web-wide conversation about the future of the web but somehow, my instincts tell me that the venue to have that conversation isn’t going to be on the web… it’s going to be in barber shops and gas stations and restaurants and the places where normal people really hang out.

If we’re ever going to bear witness to the promise of Doug Engelbart’s achievable vision, it has to be this way. And, to paraphrase walkway wisdom: nothing worth doing is easy. And so I challenge you — those who give a shit — look at what’s out there — and more importantly — what’s not out there — and begin to think seriously on what comes next… on what’s missing… on where this medium needs to be stretched in order to make the most of what’s possible.

What’s next for Firefox advocacy?

Photoshop Tennis for SFX Theme with JoshI can’t help but notice that not much has happened with Spread Firefox since I left, even though my good friend Jamey continues to feed me mockups and possible redesigns of the site (note: the photo at right isn’t Jamey’s work but an early redesign attempt between me and Josh Jarmin).

And though the Firefox Flicks Campaign was a considerable success, it didn’t seem to arouse the same kind of passionate support that the New York Times ad campaign did in its time (though it did drive a considerable amount of traffic). It seemed isolated and somewhat self-congratulatory… preaching to an audience that was already aware of and promoting the open source browser, rather than those who wouldn’t be able to separate the “Internet” from “MySpace” from “the blue E”.

And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism so much as something I’ve been stewing on for some time, trying to figure out, y’know, what comes next?

When I was at (and I continue to champion this idea mind you) I wanted Flock and Firefox to team up — to work together to show their collective usefulness across a wider and more diverse community — one that a single browser simply wouldn’t be able to appeal to as effectively as two designed with different intents. In fact, with Internet Explorer 7 on the horizon, incorporating many of the features that have set Firefox apart, I wonder whether either Flock or Firefox will have much of a chance at widespread adoption without a concerted effort to spell out more clearly the benefits of both platforms — and how developers can leverage their work across both simulataneously.

This is the challenge as it stands and as I see it. As the features that formerly set Firefox apart become standard fare in modern browsers, one way to form the question is to consider whether Firefox has served its purpose — causing Redmond to wake up and to change its flagship browser. If so, then ok, keep building it out and improving it, but tell the fans that they can go home until next season.

If the fight or the battle or the … non-violent conflict … is only beginning, then I guess I’d like to see a clear declaration of intentions. I’d like to see Mozilla stand up and declare the principles, ideas, dreams and ambitions that set it apart and keep its proponents up at night, dreaming of ways to get the story out there to an ever-widening audience. Anything less, and the juggernaut will bowl us over, diminishing the effects of the incredible achievements that have been made in the past two years. I’m looking at this as a ten-year struggle — as a hugely powerful Hydra that must be faced on each branch, what I’m talking about is the future of the web and the tools that we will use to navigate, explore, publish and own it with. In order to stay in the game and continue to participate in the conversation (or ever set the tone), we need a strategy, we need a plan, we need people and we ought get started now.

I’m open for ideas, have a few of my own, but mostly just want to know: What’s next for Firefox advocacy?

Flock 0.7 in the wild

Flock BadgeFlock has released its first public beta after many moons of rough ride’em development. Out of the box, things look pretty smokin’, but I still think Flock has a ways to go before becoming the next generation browser (and of course, I’m only consistently hard on the things I care most about).

With a brand new (Drupal-based!) website from Facebook UI designer and design rockstar Bryan Veloso, the Flock project is starting to look like something, and they’ve certainly brought it along considerably since I left in March. Whether they will really pioneer novel interfaces and inspire new thinking on how the browser can better democratize the more compelling social aspects of the web remains to be seen. As they say, Rome wasn’t build in a day; then again, by Rome 0.7, I wonder if a broader foundation would have needed to have been built for Rome 1.0 to become as great and powerful as it did. Time will tell, won’t it? Time will tell…

All in all, congrats to the team — I remain eager to see what’ll come next.