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