Flock, the new Web browser which aggregates services no other browser has yet been able to provide, has attracted widespread user attention with its first beta version after only six weeks in release.
But it remains to be seen whether its ad-driven business model will be able to sustain it over time.
Co-founder and CEO Bart Decrem told Ziff Davis Internet Wednesday that the fledgling company has hired more staff to handle demand for the browser, plus service the needs of a quickly growing support community—despite the fact that the initial release was intended for evaluation by Web developers only.
Flock, which started with about a dozen full-time staff and three part-timers, is “closing in on about 20 full-timers,” Decrem said, including employees in Europe and Japan.
Flock 0.49 has been downloaded “multiple hundreds of thousands of times,” he said, adding that the company really doesnt have an accurate download counter yet.
Flock, literally housed in a garage just off the Stanford University campus in Northern California, is a Mozilla Firefox-based, freely downloadable open-source browser to help get users around the Internet quickly while integrating a number of Web services and presenting them in intuitive ways.
Users can post a Weblog entry, build and share photo collections and share favorite Web sites (bookmarks are for books, Flock says) with friends all in one place—within the browser itself.
Analysts estimate there are 10 million to 15 million sophisticated Internet users writing Internet journals, and Flock sees this as its prime target market.
“Weve gotten off to an encouraging start,” Decrem said, “and that really excites us. Our next step is to focus on listening to what weve heard our users tell us. And what theyre telling us is basically two things: No. 1, Flock is an intriguing product, and No. 2, it still needs work.
“We agree totally with both assertions. And were working hard every day on No. 2 to get all the bugs out and make it optimal,” Decrem added.
Decrem, a veteran of the short-lived Eazel user interface company, which designed a desktop for Linux during its 1999-2001 time frame, said the Flock user e-mail lists have been very busy since the launch of the developer preview on Oct. 21 and that staff is working hard on answering questions from all users.
“They key for us is to continue to build community in this product. And were building it. Were working now on completing about 25 (language) translations. And the community has already made 80 to 100 new extensions available.
So What Sets Flock
“There are new ones submitted every week. This is also encouraging because this support is coming faster than we expected.”
How Flock differentiates itself
When a Flock user discovers a Web site about which he or she wants to post a comment in a blog, the user just right-clicks on the mouse, which then brings up the Flock blogging wizard (Blog Manager).
The browser software then automatically opens a blank blog entry and adds citations and links for the site that originally caught the users attention.
Flock also has a built-in RSS integration option, so that users can easily scan news headlines and click through to those pages for more information.
With a partnership with Vancouver, B.C.-based Flickr, Flock offers the Flickr Topbar, which allow users to drag and drop pictures into a blog post.
Flock also has a scrapbook for interesting Web content called The Shelf. Users can drag interesting URLs, pictures or text snippets from any Web page onto it. From there, these items can be inserted into a blog.
Flock uses an open-source search engine called Gecko (which Firefox also uses) that automatically indexes every Web site a user visits for easy rediscovery, and the ability to easily share favorites with friends.
Decrem said that Flock is now aiming for mid-January to release Flocks consumer-grade beta, v 0.7. The company originally had hoped to have it ready by Dec. 15. Flock is also looking at other features, such as instant messaging, to add to its “consumer-grade” version, Decrem said.
Business model still needs to prove itself
Flock is working on its business model, but is concentrating on getting people to use the browser first, Decrem said.
“We are a venture-capital-funded company, so of course we need to make some money,” Decrem said at the launch.
“We think that if we can provide a service that users love and they have full confidence in, theyll continue to use it. In the distribution of the browser is where we can be profitable. We want our users to trust us to not be intrusive [when they browse the Web], so they can do what they want to do online.”
For example, Decrem said, Flock is now evaluating various blogging sites such as Googles Blogger, MoveableType, WordPress.com and LiveJournal for compatibility.
If successful in attracting a large number of users, Flock can create a good revenue stream by recommending potential bloggers to one or more of those outside sites.
Flock would receive payment for every user that it sends to other sites, Decrem said.
“Its amazing what can be done with services like this,” Decrem said. “Opera [the Norway-based free browser] was able to do away with all their banner ads recently just by adding a Google search bar.
“Just having a successful Start page and something like what Opera is doing [the Google bar] can be enough to keep the lights on,” Decrem said.
However, some analysts are a bit skeptical about whether this will be enough to allow Flock to grow and be comfortably profitable.
“This [recommending bloggers to outside sites and search bars] sounds like an ad-driven model to me,” Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg told Ziff Davis Internet.
“What Flock is doing is interesting, but they will have to find some other ways to get revenue streams. What theyre doing now has all been done before, and its hard to do well.”
Gartenberg pointed out that Netscape, when it arrived on the scene in the mid-90s, also tried to aggregate a number of services into its browser, which at the time was state of the art.
“Netscape had e-mail, Web publishing and a bunch of other services integrated into the browser, but at the end of the day, the users simply wanted a good browsing experience,” he said.
“Flock needs to differentiate itself from others, for sure, but the totally ad-driven model isnt going to work for everyone.”