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.)
But 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 activity in your social networks and favorite news sources. It also lets you dive in for a closer look at that activity, all without having to abandon whatever Web page you’re viewing in the main window.
When you get your first look at RockMelt, one major twist in the familiar old browser interface pops out at you. It’s what RockMelt calls the “Edges.” On the left side is the Friend Edge, a column of badges representing your Facebook friends, and on the right is the App Edge, with badges that link to Twitter, your favorite news sources, and any special apps or extensions you may have installed. You can set your Friend Edge to show just the badges of your favorite Facebook friends, or just the friends who have shared updates recently. You can add whatever services you want to your App Edge. For example, if you frequently visit the home page of the New York Times, RockMelt will help you add a Times badge as a quick conduit to Times article summaries.
The Edge badges have several functions. In their passive state, badges on the Friend Edge bear green or yellow dots telling you whether your Facebook friends are online or idle, while badges on the App Edge have counters showing how many unread Tweets or stories or other items are awaiting your review. If you hover your mouse over a Friend Edge badge, you see a pop-up window with that friend’s most recent status update, and if you actually click on the badge, an iPad-style pop-over window appears, showing a longer list of updates and a chat window. Similarly, clicking on an App Edge badge brings up a pop-over window with a list of tweets, story summaries, or the like. (All of this stuff is demonstrated nicely in Robert Scoble’s 20-minute video interview with RockMelt’s co-founders, Tim Howes and Eric Vishria.)
If you like having lots of information and options at your fingertips, you’ll love the RockMelt Edges. With so many badges floating around, the Edges will definitely increase the clutter quotient on your desktop, but you can hide them if you need to reduce the distractions temporarily. (I might wind up doing that fairly often, since I find that when both Edges are active, there isn’t enough horizontal space remaining on my MacBook screen for certain Web pages to render properly. This is a particular problem with WordPress, the software we use to publish Xconomy.)
Without the Edges, of course, RockMelt is almost reduced to being a Chrome clone. Except, that is, for two more features that—while less visually obvious than the Edges— still help RockMelt users accomplish common Web tasks faster. One is the search box. In Chrome, the address bar where you enter URLs doubles as the search bar; any term you type there turns into a Google search. RockMelt’s address bar (technically it’s called the Omnibar) does the same thing, but RockMelt also provides a second, separate search bar. If you enter a query there, you’ll get a pop-over list of search results, and clicking on any of the links will bring up the appropriate pages in the main browser window. It’s a great way to screen lots of pages for the information you need without having to jump back and forth between a search result page and a series of destination pages.
Finally, there’s the Share button, which speeds up the process of telling your friends or followers about interesting stuff you’ve found on the Web. Prominently placed between the Omnibar and the search bar, the Share button instantly crafts a Facebook update, a tweet, or an e-mail message containing a summary of the page you’re viewing and a shortened link. You can edit and personalize these snippets before sending them out to the world, or just share them as is.
I’ve tested out all of the features described here, and not only do they function as advertised (most of the time), they strike me as genuinely labor-saving for anyone who makes the social Web a big part of their day. I especially like being able to see status updates or links from my Facebook friends, and even chat with my friends directly, without having to go to Facebook itself. It’s also very nice to have my Twitterstream one click away—and glancing through the other feeds in the App Edge is a good quick-and-dirty substitute for a real session with my RSS news reader.
The Share button is great, too. When I want to tweet about a new article I’ve posted on Xconomy, for example, clicking the Share button saves me at least four steps (copying the URL from a browser address bar, opening Tweetdeck, pasting the URL in to the compose area, then clicking on it to shorten it). On top of all that, RockMelt stores your account profile in the cloud, meaning that once you log in to the browser, your complete context—including your personalized Friend Edge and App Edge—follows you to any Mac or Windows computer.
RockMelt’s only technical shortcoming, at the moment, is that the startup is still figuring out how to feed an insatiably social browser all of the information it needs to thrive. If there’s a weak link in RockMelt’s scheme, it’s that every bit of data in the Edges has to be pulled in from an outside service like Facebook or Twitter. Heck, you can’t even log in to RockMelt without a Facebook account. So if the browser can’t contact Facebook for some reason, everything grinds to a halt. For at least a full day this week, the Edges wouldn’t load at all in my copy of RockMelt, and at several points the browser seemed to lose its connection with my Twitter account.
RockMelt’s leaders say that they’re aware of these issues, which are largely the product of greater-than-expected load on the startup’s servers, and that they’re working hard on fixes. In fact, in a blog post Wednesday, they coined a new term, “proudbarrassed,” to express their mixed emotions about how the software has been performing over its first week. “We’ve grown over 100x—probably 200x now—since Sunday, and we have another 10x waiting, so we are definitely experiencing some growing pains,” RockMelt’s Tim Howes told me yesterday. “All of those things are symptomatic of that, and we’re working around the clock to get those resolved.”
As I began to explain earlier, however, my main reservation about RockMelt has to do with what it represents, not how it works.
What RockMelt represents is a new lease on life for the desktop browser. There’s something important about that, of course. Today’s leading browsers—Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari—aren’t all that different from the original Mosaic and Netscape browsers, when you come right down to it. But the dogmas of the Web’s static past are inadequate to the social present. The whole notion of the browser needs to be updated to cope with today’s explosion of content sharing and communication. Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, whose fingers are all over RockMelt (see end of paragraph), said as much in an interview this week with the New York Times: “Had we known about Facebook and Twitter and Google back in ’92 or ’93, we would have built them into the browser…This is an opportunity to go back and do it right.” (Howes and Vishria were executives at Andreessen’s second company, Opsware, and Andreessen’s venture firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is RockMelt’s lead investor.)
Still, the idea of raising $10 million in venture cash to hire 30 engineers to build yet another desktop Web browser seems a little bit out of sync with reality, coming as it does at the exact moment when wireless devices like smartphones and tablets and Internet-enabled TVs are beginning to free us from our PCs.
Here’s the crux of my problem with RockMelt: I love my iPhone, and I really love my iPad. These touch-based devices aren’t just more fun to use—they’re actually more efficient for many types of activities, like reading news stories, watching movies, catching up on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and blasting through big e-mail backlogs. So I’m not really looking for more reasons to spend time using my desktop browser. Rather, I’m busy offloading as many old PC-centric tasks as I can to my other devices.
But this isn’t a seamless transition. The new interface conventions that today’s mobile application builders are busy inventing for touch-driven devices don’t have much to do with the old desktop Web formulas, so I’m incurring a lot of what you might call “cognitive switching costs.” To give just one example: I’m addicted to Gmail’s new Priority Inbox feature, which automatically pushes the e-mails that Google identifies as important to the top of my inbox and keeps the rest out of my way. But this feature only works on the desktop—it isn’t a part of the mobile version of Gmail, and there’s certainly no provision for it in the iPad’s native Mail app. That’s a serious problem, because once I open an Important message on my iPad, it disappears from the Important and Unread section of Gmail on my desktop, and I’m likely to lose track of it forever.
In short, I’m desperate for a single, consistent way to manage e-mail across all my devices. It would also be nice if Facebook worked as well on the iPad as it does on the Web. Or, conversely, if the desktop manifestation of Twitter.com worked as well as the Twitter iPad app does. Or if I didn’t have to learn three different Evernote client programs in order to access my Evernote notebooks on my Mac, my iPad, and the Web.
We’re in a weird in-between moment, when it’s becoming possible to choose the right tool for the right task, but the tools themselves aren’t yet compatible, making it harder to complete tasks that are shared across tools. That’s the problem I’d like to see Silicon Valley’s smartest engineers working on. And that’s what makes the advent of RockMelt feel somewhat bittersweet. It’s nice to have better integration between Facebook, Twitter, news feeds, search, and standard Web content on the desktop. But what’s really needed right now is better integration between the desktop social Web and the mobile social Web.
When I explained my frustration to Howes and Vishria, they were sympathetic—and they pointed out that as a partly cloud-based operation, RockMelt is already halfway to being mobile.
“Your point is very well taken, and we think about it a lot too,” Vishria said. “We started on desktop because it’s the biggest market. That’s where the bulk of browsing happens. Mobile is obviously super important, and we want to do it. One of the really nice things we’ve done with RockMelt is that if you go from your Mac to your PC or from home to work, everything goes with you, by having the context there in the cloud. That would certainly translate to a mobile experience as well. So I think that where you want to go is where we’re going. But as a startup you have to focus, and we focused on the biggest market first.” Here’s hoping that RockMelt gains enough momentum in the desktop market to carry the company beyond it.
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