Could RockMelt Become the New Third Party in the Browser Campaigns?

The United States seems stuck with a two-party political system. We don’t always have the same two parties—the Whigs were replaced by the Republicans in the 1850s, for example—but there doesn’t seem to be space in the American psyche for a third major player to take root.

Could something similar be true of the Web browser market? For a long time, the two main competitors were Netscape and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Then it was Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox. Now Google’s Chrome browser is rapidly displacing Internet Explorer—and while we’re technically in a three-browser market at the moment, IE’s user numbers are declining so steadily that it seems only a matter of time before we’re back to a two-browser world, probably defined by Firefox and Chrome.

And yet…

And yet there have always been second-tier browsers, beloved by small factions of users. There’s Apple’s Safari, of course, and Opera. For years, my favorite browser was Flock, which was acquired and discontinued by Zynga in early 2011. And about a year ago, another new player came onto the scene, with ambitious plans to be the new “social browser.”

It’s called RockMelt, and it’s loaded with features that let users tap directly into their social networks, especially Facebook, and communicate with friends. The Mountain View, CA-based startup behind the new browser has direct ties to people who laid the Web’s foundations: it has raised $40 million in venture capital from Andreessen Horowitz, the venture firm of Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, as well as Accel Partners and Khosla Ventures.

So far, about 1.4 million people have downloaded RockMelt, and several hundred thousand are active users, according to CEO Eric Vishria, who stopped by Xconomy San Francisco yesterday (see video below). Those numbers are small even compared to Safari and Opera, let alone Chrome, Firefox, and IE. But Vishria says the company’s aim is to give Web surfers so many unique and useful features that RockMelt will eventually displace one of today’s Big Three browsers. “While there have been, historically, two and right now three players that have massive market share, the players have changed a lot,” he notes. “Every few years someone new comes along: IE, Firefox, Chrome, and now us.”

To leapfrog Safari and Opera and displace IE or Firefox or Chrome, RockMelt needs to do two things, Vishria says. One is to create “a massively differentiated product” that “looks different than anything else.” It’s already well on the way to doing that: RockMelt’s distinguishing features are its “Friend Edge,” which shows which of your Facebook friends are online and instantly reachable, and its “App Edge,” where users can quickly access favorite outside websites and services. It’s also unusual in that it sports big buttons that let users compose Tweets or Facebook status updates, or share the pages they’re viewing with followers or friends.

The other mission is to turn RockMelt users into evangelists. Already, two-thirds of users have recommended the app to at least one friend, but Vishria says the company is planning features that will make it easier for users to tell more friends about the browser.

I’ve been using RockMelt as my default browser since November 2010, when it was first released in a private beta test. The company opened the beta to the public in March, and tomorrow it’s rolling out a new “Beta5” release containing a bunch of new features. Most software updates these days don’t mean much—in the cloud era, almost every piece of consumer-facing code undergoes constant revision. But taken together, the elements in tomorrow’s release show how RockMelt intends to compete in the coming year.

In the video below, Vishria gives a quick tour of the new features in RockMelt Beta5. Story continues after video.

In Vishria’s world view, the giants of today’s Web are Google and Facebook, and RockMelt is “an ambitious mouse dancing between these elephants.” Over the next 12 months, he believes, Google and Facebook will square off in three main areas: identity, information consumption, and communications. “For us, it’s really exciting to see this happening, because on all three of those we were first,” he says. “We were the first to have a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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