E&T reviews Flock, plus the latest consumer and engineering apps for the iPhone.
Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, del.icio.us – the new media, Web 2.0, social networking landscape is littered with new names and ideas to get your head round. Whether you’re a social media pro or an utter novice, Flock aims to corral the lot together in one easy-to-keep-up-with place.
For “newbies”, social media sites let you share information with the whole world, or just those in a network of trusted friends, and let you gather information from thousands of other users. The problem is navigating the blizzard of information this tends to throw up.
Flock is essentially a version of Mozilla’s Firefox Web browser. At its core, it does exactly what Firefox does – lets you browse the Web fairly quickly and with few crashes. But on top of that, Flock adds sidebars and plug-ins specifically aimed at “aggregating” social media site information.
Key to this is a sidebar that drags in information and updates from social media sites. If you keep up with friends on Facebook, or updated the world with 140 character “tweets” on Twitter, then these can be hauled into Flock. If you upload and share pictures on Picasa or Flickr, or videos on YouTube, those also get dragged in. If you blog from WordPress or Blogger, your posts can be made in Flock. And if you read RSS feeds of friends’ blogs or want to be informed when a site or forum post gets updated, then these also appear in Flock. The result is a scrolling sidebar snapshot of your social media world.
Most instantly useful is the “People” tab. This lets you track conversations, status updates and even new media uploads from the key social media sites (most notably Facebook and Twitter) from anyone in your network. You can reply to specific tweets or update your own status within the sidebar.
Also fairly vital if you’re a social media maniac are the blog posting tools – these let you drag and drop images and quotes from other websites and post up to common blogging platforms without leaving the Flock browser and a small pop-up editing window.
The same approach is also applied to picture sharing sites – simply drag photos from your hard drive or other sites and you can then crop and tag them before uploading to wherever you want – Facebook, Picasa, Flickr etc.
As well as the sidebars, the default homepage for Flock, dubbed My World, lets you access the latest RSS feed items and other recent news as you open the browser.
Does Flock, then, represent an ideal way to access the Web 2.0 world? Sadly not. For those just diving into the complex and confusing world of social media sites, Flock’s design adds complexity and clutter to Firefox – and most “newbies” would probably rather take on social media one facet at a time – using one application or browser tab for reading RSS feeds, another for images and video, a third for friends’ statuses etc.
On the other hand, for hardened social media fans, Flock has too many gaps. IM support for Skype and other common IM services is missing, dragging-and-dropping links from the browser window don’t get automatically shortened (vital for fitting into the 140 characters a “tweet” allows), and the RSS feed reading service is arguably inferior to the Web-based Google Reader – which lets you mark items as read anywhere from any device capable of logging into Google (laptops, phones etc.). And it doesn’t appear you can update your status on multiple sites simultaneously.
Too complex for novices, with too many gaps for social media mavens, Flock currently falls between two stools. But in the fast-moving Web 2.0 world, that may not be the case for long.
Angry Birds for iPhone
The best games on the iPhone are often the simplest. Angry Birds combines a simple premise with increasingly inventive play.
The idea is to launch birds at pigs who've stolen their eggs. But the pigs are hidden behind precariously balanced barriers. The only way to get at them is to launch your birds in arcs from a catapult - demolishing and toppling stuff in the way. Different birds have different attributes - some can be triggered to dive-bomb, some split into birdlets, some drop explosive eggs.
Each one of 63 levels gives you a set number and order of the types of birds you get. Your job is to plot trajectories and physical impacts to wipe out the pigs with the minimum number of birds, using each to maximum advantage. Similar in its physics based approach to fun classics like Spaced Penguin! Angry Birds is fiendishly addictive fun.
Cyclemeter for iPhone
With the iPhone's built-in GPS, this app (and its walking and running siblings) track your routes - rivalling cycle computers and jogging pedometers.
The app tracks your location using GPS - creating a breadcrumb trail of where you've been, but also uses that data to work out how long you were out, how fast you were going at each point, how much climbing or descending you did, how far you went etc. You can name regular routes and track yourself against past performance. You can also export routes you've done to share with others and view summaries of your activity daily, weekly or monthly.
This certainly makes simpler cycle computers/pedometer trackers redundant for the price. But you cannot pre-load routes you haven't yet run, for navigation. Nor can you tie the app to a heartrate monitor.
Billings Touch for iPhone
If you're freelance, contract or need to account for time regularly for clients, Billings Touch might be your new best friend. It's a one-stop shop for time, expense and invoice tracking.
You create clients (from your iPhone's contacts book, or from scratch) and projects. Within each project, you create items: from expenses you've racked up to time accrued on rate, flat fees and mileage.
The app comes with a timer that runs in the background until stopped. And this can even be used to time flat fee jobs - to check if you're charging appropriately. For an extra £8.99 you can also send and track invoices from your phone and sync to Billings for Mac (which adds estimates, statements, flash templates, reports etc.).