The RockMelt Mystery. Is it Just a Facebook Browser, Or Will It Break The Mold?

Marc Andreessen is backing a new browser company called RockMelt. Not much is known about RockMelt other than it is being designed by an all-star team (including software engineer Robert John Churchill from the Netscape days) and that it is tied into Facebook through Facebook Connect. Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb has a screenshot of the sign-in page and speculates that RockMelt is in fact a Facebook browser. Miguel Helft at the NYT leans in that direction as well.  It kind of makes sense since Andreessen is on the board of Facebook, but I suspect it is only half the story.

A Facebook browser, however, is a good metaphor for thinking about how browsers, in general, need to change.  What would a Facebook browser look like? Well, to start with, you would be able to see updates from your friends on Facebook, share your own updates and media right from the browser, and perhaps IM with your friends through Facebook chat. While those set of features would be convenient, they are nothing revolutionary. Flock, which calls itself the social browser, already incorporates Facebook Connect (and Twitter and other social networks to boot), but it hasn’t taken off. And Facebook itself offers a toolbar for Firefox that lets you see notifications, search Facebook, and share links. There are plenty of other Firefox add-ons which incorporate Facebook features as well.

But the Facebook connection may just be the starting point for a much more ambitious piece of software. Andreessen said as much to the NYT in an interview earlier this year, which Helft quotes from in his article:

Mr. Andreessen suggested the new browser would be different, saying that most other browsers had not kept pace with the evolution of the Web, which had grown from an array of static Web pages into a network of complex Web sites and applications. “There are all kinds of things that you would do differently if you are building a browser from scratch,” Mr. Andreessen said.

What sorts of things is he talking about? Making the browser social appears to be at the top of the list. The first thing you do is connect to Facebook. But that could just be a building block for a social browser that handles Web apps in an entirely new way. The browser was built around the Web page metaphor, but increasingly the most interesting things happening on the Web do not necessarily exist on any one Web page. They exist in real time data streams (such as Facebook’s portable News Feed and Twitter) and in richer Webtop applications. A modern browser should be designed not only to surf the Web, but to manage your information streams and Web apps all in a seamless user interface.

Whether or not RockMelt is tackling this broader challenge, I don’t know. But I hope it is because we need to move the ball forward with a radical, yet accessible, new approach. Radical, yet accessible—that is the challenge. It must be radical enough to open up new, more efficient, avenues of information discovery, creation, and interaction. It must be a communications platform as well as a browsing platform.

The original browser model was one of consumption, of reading Web pages as if they were documents. Despite all the progress of the past decade, we are still stuck with that legacy to a large degree because it is built into our browsers. So what would a true social browser look like? Below is my own wish list of features (some of these are available as add-ons or in existing desktop clients, but there is an opportunity to unify them in one seamless experience):

  • It would have multiple modes for browsing, search, following social data streams, and launching Web applications
  • The home page would be a stream reader which brings together real time streams from across the Web (which Facebook now has with Friendfeed).
  • IM, email, and public messages (status updates and Tweets) would be always accessible in the toolbar or a sidebar
  • It would support a variety of Web apps which could be launched seamlessly within the browser without going to a Website and logging in.
  • One-button access to sharing services of your choice (Flickr, Posterous, Youtube, WordPress)
  • Real-time search and alerts from across the Web (social stream, news, finance sites, sports sites, etc.)
  • Support for Google Gears to give the browser offline capabilities as well as local caching and a light database for computing tasks

That’s just off the top of my head.  If you were redesigning the browser from scratch today, what would it look like?