RockMelt: A Browser Built For Sharing (First Hands On And 500 Exclusive Invites)

If you are going to create a new browser from scratch and go up against the Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Apple, you might as well make it really different. RockMelt, a company backed by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen which has been under wraps until today, is trying to build a new browsing experience from the ground up. Are they crazy? “The big thing,” says Andreessen, “is that the browser world is very much in flux right now.”

RockMelt is built first and foremost for sharing. You browse with your friends (the first thing you do is log into Facebook and your favorite friends and their latest status updates are always available along the left rail). And there is a big “Share” button up top, which lets you share any webpage, along with images and a preview, on Facebook. You could call it a Facebook browser, but it really is more than that. I’ll get into my full review shortly, but if you want to try out RockMelt for yourself, be one of the first 500 TechCrunch readers to click this link—Update: link removed because the invites are long gone—and you will get an invite before anyone else).

The three biggest changes to the browser that you notice with RockMelt is that it is built around friends, feeds, and search results. The left rail is for friend. The right rail is for sites. And the top rail is for search.

Your Facebook friends browse with you along the left-hand rail. You can select your most important or closest Facebook friends, and their faces are always there with you along with an indication whether they are online or not. If you hover over a face, their latest status update pops up. click on their face and you get a box showing their Facebook stream in the top half, and a chat box in the bottom. So it acts as an IM client using Facebook chat (see screenshot below). You even get inline images and video, which you don’t normally get in Facebook chat. If your friend is offline, you can send him or her a Facebook message.

Along the right rail is where you organize all your news feeds and streams from your favorite sites. This is kind of like a bookmark bar, but when you save a site here, it also includes notifications every time new content has been added. This is very convenient for news sites, blogs, Gmail, Twitter, and your own Facebook profile. (See screenshot below). Click on a site icon, and you up pops an overlay window with an RSS feed with all the articles, or Twitter stream, or your email headlines, depending the site. Click on a headline and it takes you to that page (or email or Tweet) in the main underlying browser window. There is also a share button for every feed item, which works just like the big share button up at the top of the browser.

When you do a search from the search box, instead of taking you to Google, you get a column with the first ten results. You can tab through each result, which is pre-loaded into the browser, so you can actually see the Web pages behind each result in the full browser. This is designed to speed up searching, although at least initially I find myself tabbing through each link, if only for a second or two.

Overall, RockMelt seems really fast. It is built on Chromium, the same open source browser that forms the foundation of Google’s Chrome browser. Given the fact that it is backed by Andreessen (and Ron Conway, Bill Campbell, Josh Kopelman, and Diane Green to the tune of $10 million) and its principle architect was also the principle architect of the Netscape browser, this is a pretty significant vote of confidence in Chromium as the future of browsing. “Chromium is a newer codebase,” explains Andreessen. “It is state of the art. The performance increase is unbelievable.” He’s not one for nostalgia.

The basic browsing functions are familiar, and the sharing, streaming, and search overlays don’t seem too obtrusive. This is not Flock, the browser experiment which never really caught on because it strayed too far from most people’s browsing comfort zone. RockMelt will face similar challenges, but at least it is starting out simple.

The biggest change RockMelt is trying to introduce is to bring in different streams as a natural browsing experience and starting point. In fact, these stream overlays (your friends updates, feeds, and even search results) take over the screen more and more.

A year and a half ago, when whispers of RockMelt first surfaced, I wrote a post with a wish list of features I’d like to see in a social browser.  I am happy to say that some of them made it into RockMelt in some form or another.  From that wish list:

  • 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.
  • Real-time search and alerts from across the Web (social stream, news, finance sites, sports sites, etc.)

Last week, I asked Andreessen if he thinks RockMelt is a harbinger of the end of the webpage. He wouldn’t go so far:

The webpage stays primary for decades to come. It is a universal canvas for any application or service. I think you want to retain that, but you want to enhance it. That is why we keep the page front and center but draw in these things people care about: friends, feeds, updates, search results.

Maybe that’s true for now. But eventually, the stream takes over. It is simply a more efficient way to browse.

But here’s the thing about RockMelt. You log into it, and it knows everywhere you go on the Web, who all your friends are, and what your search habits. It also knows what you share with your friends. Combine those three: social sharing, search, and actual browsing behavior, and you’ve got one hell of a way to target ads at people. RockMelt doesn’t do this now, and its founders tell me they will never do so because it would destroy whatever trust people place in them. (Damn straight). “We are not going to run an ad network. We actually don’t know where you go,” says co-founder Tim Howes, “that information does not leave your browser.” Hopefully, it never will.