RockMelt Enters Browser Wars with Backing from Marc Andreessen, Focus on Facebook and Twitter
Change in the browser market, compared to newer areas like mobile apps, is truly glacial: the main trend over the past few years has been the gradual migration of Internet Explorer users (the Microsoft browser still has a 60 percent market share) to Mozilla’s Firefox (23 percent) and Google’s Chrome (9 percent). But if anyone can help shake up the browser market, it may be the guy who created it: Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen. His venture firm Andreessen Horowitz is the lead investor in RockMelt, a Mountain View, CA, startup that released its new Mac and Windows Web browser in private beta today.
RockMelt, built using the same open-source Chromium code behind Google’s Chrome, is designed to let heavy users of social media services like Facebook and Twitter interact with their friends and followers from the main browser window, without having to switch tabs or pages or fire up separate client programs or widgets. So the biggest visual difference between RockMelt and other browsers is the presence of two “edges” down the right and left sides of the window—a Favorites Edge showing individual Facebook friends, and an App Edge showing how many new RSS news stories, Facebook news feed updates, or tweets are awaiting viewing. Appropriately enough, you need a Facebook account to use RockMelt, and even to request an invitation to download it.
In a press release, Andreessen described RockMelt as “the freshest, most innovative take on browsing since browsers were created.” Tim Howes and Eric Vishria, who co-founded the company in 2008, have “rethought the browser around the massive shifts in user behavior that will drive the Web over the next decade,” meaning social networking and media sharing, Andreessen said.
Howes, RockMelt’s chairman and chief technology officer, is the former CTO at server management software maker Opsware, where Vishria, now RockMelt’s CEO, was vice president of marketing. Both spent about a year at Hewlett-Packard after the Palo Alto computing giant acquired Opsware in 2007. They’ve built a team of 30 employees at RockMelt; to fund the effort, they’ve raised about $10 million from a group of Silicon Valley luminaries including Andreessen Horowitz, former Intuit CEO Bill Campbell, angel investor Ron Conway, former VMware CEO Diane Greene, and First Round Capital managing partner Josh Kopelman.
The association between RockMelt and Andreessen Horowitz (which closed fundraising on a second, $650 million fund last week) is deeply genetic: Opsware, originally called LoudCloud, was founded by Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, now co-general partner at the venture firm; Horowitz, formerly Opsware’s CEO, is also an individual investor in RockMelt.
RockMelt isn’t the first browser to incorporate social networking features into its interface—that distinction goes to Flock, a Redwood City, CA, startup that released its first browser in 2005. But Flock, which was originally based on the open source Mozilla platform and was recently rebuilt atop Chromium, has only about 8 million users worldwide, putting it in a distant sixth place behind IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. Howes and Vishria told Om Malik this weekend that RockMelt’s timing is better than Flock’s, with the massive popularity of Facebook and Twitter preparing the way for a browser that emphasizes social services.
Internet pundits are offering mixed reactions to the RockMelt debut so far, with many commentators expressing skepticism that there’s room for a new browser on the market. Rackspace blogger Robert Scoble agrees there’s a need for a browser that better integrates Facebook and Twitter, but wonders whether Web users will want to adapt to requirements like RockMelt’s Facebook login. Om Malik says RockMelt is “entering a saturated market and will need to fight for attention…they want to focus on mainstream consumers, but they have to contend with the harsh reality that people are slow to change and switch.”
In a tweet, paidContent founder Rafat Ali calls the browser wars an example of “Silicon Valley bubble mentality at its worst” and predicts that RockMelt will flame out within two years. Futurist and former Corante columnist Stowe Boyd says the future of the connected Web lies elsewhere—specifically, with mobile apps—and calls social browsers “a small idea” comparable to the DVR, which allowed people to shift the times they watch TV but didn’t change TV programming itself.
I just got my RockMelt invitation and haven’t had time to play with the browser yet, but will review the new software in detail in a coming article.
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