Does the world need yet another browser? Tim Howes and Eric Vishria think that it does, and that is one of the reasons why two years ago they started Mountain View, Calif.-based RockMelt, raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Andreessen Horowitz (and scores of technology luminaries such VMware co-founder Dianne Greene, Intuit’s Bill Campbell and Josh Kopelman) and hired away some of the best design and browser talent from other companies. Their socially aware browser will finally see the light of day today and will be made available as a beta version.
It’s a bold move by the two co-founders. They are entering a hotly contested market that is dominated by Microsoft (Internet Explorer), Google (Chrome), Mozilla (Firefox) and Apple (Safari). In addition, they’re launching a desktop browser — it works on Windows and Mac OS — at a time when the axis of computing is shifting to touch-driven mobile devices.
Vishria and Howes say the reason they started the company was that, while people’s usage of web and the services they use have changed, the browser itself hasn’t changed very much. “The modern web has evolved to a point where it needs a new kind of browsing experience,” said Vishria, CEO of RockMelt. “I can’t understand why the web browsing experience is so serial, especially when we have so much available processing speeds, memory and available bandwidth.”
He argues that today, everyone in the browser market is about minimal user experience, ease of navigation and speed. What RockMelt is focused on is around people’s web usage – which centers on consuming content, social sharing and social networking.
RockMelt’s quest reminds me of another grand attempt to take on the browser establishment, called Flock, which, despite great social aspirations, has had a tough go of it thus far. Vishria and Howes say that it is all about timing. Thanks to increased broadband penetration, the rise of cloud-based services and mainstream adoption of social services such as Facebook and Twitter, the browser itself needs to be social, said Howes, who worked at LoudCloud/Opsware along with Vishria.
“Most people communicate with a few friends and check only a few sites and we’ve made it easy for them to stay connected and get their information,” said Vishria. The browser integrates Facebook, Twitter and other social services right into the browser itself. At the same time, it makes it easy to add news feeds and other information sources. The browser, which is based on Chromium (the open-source project behind Google’s Chrome browser), requires you to sign-in with your Facebook credentials. Once logged in, you can add your favorite friends and news feeds on the left and right side of the browser. The browser makes it easy to update, tweet and share content via Facebook and Twitter. (See screenshots to get more details on the browser and its features.)
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From the demos I saw, the 30-person company has done a fantastic job of integrating social features into the browsing experience. It has developed proprietary technologies (mostly HTML5-based) that make search a massively fast and more meaningful experience. The browser uses its built-in cache to pre-fetch, then pre-render a lot of content and make it available instantaneously.
However, it still has its work cut out for it; it’s entering a saturated market and will need to fight for attention. RockMelt wants to focus on mainstream consumers, but it has to contend with the harsh reality that people are slow to change and switch. Look at how long it took for Internet Explorer numbers to start sinking. Perhaps that’s why the company is focusing on getting the browser in the hands of many users before trying to build a business model. “Search is a good way for browsers to get paid, and we are thinking about other services beyond search, but that comes later,” said Howes. For now, the founders will be happy if a million people are using their browser in six months.
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