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 default logged-in experience. [RockMelt doesn’t work as intended unless users are logged into their Facebook accounts.] We were the first to push content through the app edges. And we were the first to build in chat across tabs. Now we are working on moving the ball forward in all three of those areas.”

A few weeks ago RockMelt introduced a new option for App Edge apps called Social Reading. If you open the CNN app and turn on the Social Reading option, for example, you can see a list of people in your network who have read specific CNN stories, and others will be able to see which stories you read. It’s classic collaborative filtering: the idea is to help users tap their social networks to find worthwhile content. In the Beta5 release, a feed of stories that friends are reading will show up in more places in the browser, such as the new tab page. (That’s an often-viewed page because it’s what shows up after you’ve opened a new tab but before you’ve navigated to a specific URL.)

The New Tab page in RockMelt Beta5

The new tab page will also feature big photos of friends who are online, to entice users to start chat conversations. And the startup is overhauling the way the “omnibox” works—that’s the area where you type Web addresses, but as the name suggests, it now has many other functions. If you type a friend’s name, the omnibox will bring up their picture and give you links for jumping directly to their Facebook profile, sending them a Facebook message, or writing on their Facebook wall. “With Facebook rolling out Timeline, we’re seeing that it’s so much more fun to peruse your friends online,” says Vishria. “This is all the goodness Timeline has to offer with direct navigation from the omnibox.”

RockMelt’s programmers have also made it easier to manage the apps in the App Edge. The edge is now expandable and scrollable, to make it easier to reposition or delete apps. And there’s a new App Center where users can browse more than 150 information sites whose content feeds are available as RockMelt apps.

Overall, the new features in RockMelt Beta 5 are meant to assist with tasks like information discovery and sharing that users of other browsers must handle on their own, Vishria says. “We are trying to solve a general problem, which is how do we make it easier for people to interact with their friends and find great Web content,” he says.

The formula seems to hold special appeal for young audiences: Vishria says 60 percent of RockMelt’s users are under 25. These users tend to see RockMelt as “their fun browser,” he says—the one they use when they want to spend time on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or YouTube, or see what their friends are doing. (When they really have to buckle down and get some work done, these users can go into “quiet mode,” which turns off both edges and blocks incoming chat requests. That’s a feature I use a lot.)

While Web browsers for PCs and laptops are clearly gaining in sophistication—“all browsers are going to be social in the next few years,” Vishria predicts—there’s also a competing trend underway that I’ll call “appification,” for lack of a better word. I’m talking about the spread of news reading apps (many of them social) and native versions of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking services on smartphones and tablets. As I argued in my first review of RockMelt back in November 2010, the company has picked a challenging time to enter the browser market: not only do Vishria and his 39 employees have to contend with IE, Firefox, and Chrome, but users are abandoning the desktop Web by the millions, preferring to do much of their news browsing, tweeting, and chatting on their iPads, iPhones, and Android devices.

Yesterday was my chance to find out what Vishria thinks about appification. He had an interesting and nuanced response. “Yes, you can go and have an isolated Facebook experience or an isolated Twitter experience,” he says. “But the beauty of the Web is links. You can click on something and you never know where you’ll end up. It’s sloppy and messy, but it allows you to explore so much. It would be really sad if these curated, limited, siloed app experiences win.”

At the same time, Vishria acknowledges that mobile device manufacturers and app developers have given users elegant, streamlined ways to ingest and share information—something browser builders and Web developers haven’t yet fully figured out. “What we are trying to do here is combine the beauty and elegance and simplicity of the app experience with the messy genius of the Web,” he says. “But it’s a complex problem, and I will be the first to tell you that we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible.” (RockMelt offers an iPhone app that’s not a full browser, but rather a mobile version of the App Edge that syncs up with your desktop browser. I asked Vishria if the startup is working on something for the iPad, where a full social browser would make more sense as an alternative to Safari. “We are always thinking about it” was his cagey response.)

The "social omnibox" in Rockmelt Beta5

For now, in Vishria’s view, mobile devices and desktop computers are still used for very different purposes. “Nobody uses their iPad or their iPhone seven hours a day,” he notes. “When you are spending that long at your computer, the messiness of the Web becomes super valuable. It’s when you’re spending five minutes in line at Starbucks or 30 minutes in bed flipping through stuff that these mobile, more simplistic, but definitely more elegant experiences come into play.” But over the next two the three years, Vishria thinks, “There’s going to be a massive crossover” between mobile and desktop platforms. “That’s a world that we think about a lot-what does a browser look like in that Wild West.”

With fewer than a million weekly active users, RockMelt has a long way to go before it becomes a serious threat to Microsoft, Mozilla, or Google. But Vishria says the company is more preoccupied with engagement rates than with the raw user count. “Our average user uses RockMelt for seven hours a day, opens apps on the App Edge 26 times per day, and has seven chat conversations,” he says. And the Social Reading feature is proving popular: a new article is shared almost once every second. “We are super optimistic and excited about where the numbers are,” Vishria says. “That’s what we are focused on-that and on making the product absolutely killer. If we do that, we should be able to get massive adoption.” Or, perhaps, at least, to the status of viable third party.

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

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