RockMelt: A Great Social Browser for the Desktop, But Isn’t This the Mobile Era?

While nearly everything about the Web has changed since its emergence circa 1993—who’s using it, what types of content are available, how Web pages are constructed, how it’s all paid for—the desktop browser hasn’t. It’s still basically a big blank square that lets you navigate between Web pages, with a set of buttons and controls around the edges.

That’s not to say that browsers don’t evolve. Every few years some team of engineers comes out with a new one designed to address the perceived shortcomings of its predecessors. Thus we got entrants like Opera 4.0 in 2000 (a response to the need for browsers on non-PC platforms like mobile phones), Firefox in 2004 (a reaction to feature creep in Netscape’s Mozilla browser), Flock in 2005 (a reaction to the lack of social features in Firefox), and Chrome in 2008 (Google’s answer to the other browsers’ alleged performance and security problems). But the basic concept has remained the same: browser as vessel, designed to deliver Web pages and then stay out of the way.

Now there’s another new browser in town: RockMelt. The premise, this time, is that older browsers haven’t caught up to the new ways people are using the Web—in particular, the way they’re spending more time interacting with each other via social platforms like Facebook, and getting more of their information pushed to them in small chunks via channels like Twitter and RSS. Built for Mac and Windows computers by a venture-funded startup in Mountain View, CA, RockMelt was released to the public on Monday in limited beta form after two years of stealth-mode development. After using RockMelt as my default browser all week, I feel qualified to say that it represents the biggest departure yet from the old pattern of the Web browser as a big blank vessel. That’s a good thing—the browser concept needed some further shaking up, and after all, it was to encourage precisely this kind of innovation that organizations like Mozilla, Google, and Apple open-sourced parts of their browser code bases. (RockMelt is built atop Google’s Chromium and Apple’s Webkit.)

RockMelt browswer sample screen shotBut while I like RockMelt—and will probably stick with it (sorry, Chrome)—I’m not persuaded that it fully delivers on the startup’s promise to build a browser “designed around you and how you use the Web.” That’s because how we use the Web is changing even faster than browser makers can keep up, and has less and less to do with the PC desktop and more to do with mobility and information appliances like smartphones, tablets, and Internet-connected TVs. Don’t get me wrong—I’m awed by all the work that’s gone into RockMelt. But I worry that the issue the startup chose to tackle is already out of date.

To put it another way: RockMelt doesn’t solve the problem that needs solving the most right now, which, to my mind, is the inconsistent way we experience the Web when we access it from different types of devices. The truth is that today’s mobile computing gadgets, and the plethora of apps available for them, are finally making it possible to spend less time sitting at your desktop PC, while still getting most of the benefits of the Web and social media. But RockMelt’s product is still solidly PC-centric. The startup’s implicit pitch is that your desktop browser should be both your main news-gathering conduit and your social media control center. Now that the Web is everywhere, though, I want to be able to switch fluidly between information devices depending on what I’m doing, and what I really need are tools that make that easier, lessening the sense of cognitive dissonance every time I close the lid on my MacBook and switch on my iPad or my Kindle or my Roku Player. RockMelt isn’t that, yet.

What is RockMelt? Before I get back to my lofty criticisms, let me spend a few paragraphs explaining what’s so interesting about the new browser. Mainly, it’s the elegant way RockMelt integrates with an individual user’s Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds. Once you’re signed in—RockMelt may be the first case where you have to log in to the browser itself, in addition to the Web services or communities you visit—it provides a continuous yet unobtrusive picture of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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