RockMelt: Does the world need another Web browser?

We know that the browser market has room for at least five strong, healthy competitors. Social browser RockMelt is trying to prove that a sixth contender can do well, too. And its close ties to Facebook could help.

RockMelt's upcoming Social Reading feature

Once upon a time--actually, it was less than a decade ago--Microsoft's Internet Explorer dominated the Web browser business so utterly that it appeared that the market didn't have room for a second significant player. 

Then Mozilla's Firefox came along and became that strong second-place browser. And Apple's Safari, with its Webkit rendering engine, proved enormously influential. And Google's Chrome displaced Firefox as the favorite browser of Web nerds.

Today, breakdowns of browser usage vary, but they all show vibrant competition. Research firm Net Applications says that IE retains 51.8% of the market, Firefox has 21.1%, Chrome has 14.5%, Safari has 7.7%, and Opera (the Norwegian browser that dates from the Web's earliest days) has 2.9%. There's plenty of market share to go around.

But is there room for a sixth player?

That's the question posed by RockMelt, a browser which launched in November of last year and remains in beta. It was created by Tim Howes and Eric Vishria; one of its backers is Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist who co-invented the graphical browser back in the early 1990s and co-founded Netscape. (Any browser that Marc Andreessen finds interesting enough to invest money in is interesting, period.)

RockMelt emphasizes social features--especially ones relating to Facebook. You can update your Facebook status and Tweet, chat with your Facebook friends, get notifications from Twitter about new messages and other items, read RSS feeds, and share items on Facebook and Twitter.

Howes, Vishria, and their team have built a lot of features--but one thing they didn't build is an all-new browser. Instead, they based RockMelt on Chromium, the open-source version of Chrome. That saved them a lot of effort and insured that RockMelt would get the basics right, since so much of it is so very similar to Chrome. If you like Google's browser, you might like RockMelt even more. And as Chrome gets better, so will RockMelt.

RockMelt has uncanny parallels wih Flock, an earlier attempt at injecting social features directly into a Web browser. It debuted in 2005 and was originally based on the same open-source Mozilla code as Firefox. I liked it--a lot. In fact, it was my favorite browser for a while.

But Flock never became even a modest hit, and it turned out to be tough to build an alternative browser over the Mozilla innards. (Much of the time, Flock was a version behind Firefox.) In 2010, Flock made the daring move of abandoning Mozilla and releasing a new, quite different version based, like RockMelt, on Chromum. That didn't help enough, and the Flock team joined Zynga, leaving its browser behind as an orphan. 

In its current version, RockMelt feels quite a bit like Flock, a browser that ultimately failed. And RockMelt can't be called a success yet: Its market share isn't high enough to register in the stats released by companies who track browser usage. (On my own site, Technologizer, less than one-fifth of one percent of visitors came via RockMelt in the past 90 days.)

But i don't see Flock's demise as evidence that RockMelt is doomed to flop, and I don't think the fact that its usage is currently tiny is proof that it can't grow to a figure high enough that people start thinking of it as a genuine rival to the bigger browsers. For one thing, Flock just took way too long to get where it was trying to go: It was in beta for two years before it really was worth paying attention to at all. And after five years, its creators killed the Mozilla version and introduced a Chrome edition that was so different that they were essentially starting over.

In less than a year, RockMelt has surpassed what it took Flock five years to build, so it's already got a great big head start.

Moreover, while RockMelt's current version is pleasant but not a great leap forward for the browser, the concept of building the best browser for Facebook remains powerful. It'll only get more so, too: Last week, RockMelt announced a beta 4 version that incorporates "Social Reading" features powered by Facebook's wildly ambitious  new Open Graph platform , which allows third-party sites to share stuff via Facebook with no ongoing human intervention. 

RockMelt's explanation of what Social Reading entails is vague, but I'm intrigued--and I'm also wondering whether the browser could build in features that take advantage of other activities powered by Facebook's Open Graph, such as music listening. For instance, what if you could see what your Facebook friends were listening to on Spotify even if you weren't on Facebook or in Spotify? What if RockMelt lived and breathed Facebook in a manner that no other browser did?

Mark Zuckerberg has audacious plans to make Facebook into a deep digital recreation of everything we've ever done and ever will do. RockMelt is along for the ride. And it doesn't have to become the dominant browser for the majority of Facebook's users to have an impact on the market--it just needs to attract a decent percentage of the most ardent Facebook fans.

When the new RockMelt beta with the Social Reading feature arrives, I'm going to try living with it as my primary browser for a while. I'm not predicting that it's going to be a big deal, but I'll be delighted if it turns out to be one. Let's see where its market share stands a year from now--if it's anywhere within striking range of Opera, this browser could be going places.

 

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