Between A RockMelt And A Hard Place: The Quest For The Social Browser

As with most things on the web, the insanity surrounding the initial launch of RockMelt died down quickly. The first reactions had some people screaming “eureka!”, while others yelled “Flock 2.0!” The truth, as I see it after a few days of usage, is that the latest social web browser is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

I know, it’s boring to say, but RockMelt neither sucks nor is it awesome. It is much better than Flock already for one very important reason: it’s about a billion times faster than Flock was. In the world of web browsing, that’s all that really matters. Flock apparently thought — well, I don’t know what Flock thought. It was just dog slow. And that was in an age when browsers themselves were much slower than they are now.

There’s no doubt that a big part of RockMelt’s speed can be attributed to the Chromium web browser on which it is built. This is, of course, the same browser on which Chrome is built. And, incidentally, it is also what Flock has switched to in recent months (though it’s still lacking in several other areas). RockMelt uses a slightly older version of Chromium, but it’s still plenty fast.

But the usage of Chromium is also RockMelt’s greatest weakness. RockMelt still feels very much like Chrome — it just feels like a version of Chrome with extensions installed by default. That is to say, the social element of the browser, the key to it, feels tacked-on. And that’s okay, but why couldn’t this just be an extension for Chrome? Why does it have to be a completely separate browser?

I know that the social integration is deeper than it would be with an extension. When you start up RockMelt, it takes about a second longer while it signs into your Facebook account. Then it takes another few seconds (sometimes longer) to load up your social Edges with your connection to Facebook and Twitter. But I’m not seeing anything that really wows me in terms of this deeper integration.

And some of the elements look kind of odd and out of place. Some of the social overlays, for example, look like they belong on Safari and not Chrome (on the Mac at least, obviously).

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the possibility of Google using Chrome as their social layer and/or Facebook building their own browser. I had no idea RockMelt was about the launch, but what I wrote seems even more applicable now that it has. I can’t help but wonder if it’s going to take one of the big players to nail the social browser.

Again, I go back to this feeling of these social elements in RockMelt (and Flock) being tacked-on. What we need is a browser built from the ground up with social elements in mind. That reeks of Facebook. As we’ve heard over and over again in recent weeks from the company, social is not just something you can layer on. If that applies to the web, it also applies to the web browser.

Facebook undoubtedly believes Google can’t build Chrome into a social browser because of their layering mentality. But with 100 million or so users getting automatic upgrades, people would use it if Google did it. It might not be good, but people would still use it. Facebook shouldn’t underestimate that. If Facebook built their own browser, they would have to entice people to download it, just like Google had to do over the course of many months. That’s significantly harder to do then adding some social features.

One of the main reasons why Chrome grew quickly was that it was simply the best browser in many peoples’ minds. A big reason for that was that it was the fastest browser. And it also lacked all the typical UI baggage that browsers tend to come with. Humorously, it lacked much of the chrome, as it were.

RockMelt tacks on a bunch of the chrome. And a Google social Chrome (capital “C”) undoubtedly would too. I’m thinking a social browser will have to be an entirely new experience that melds ultra-quick browsing with social concepts. It shouldn’t be about just adding share buttons.

But it’s important to remember that RockMelt is still very early in its life. The company has already issued a couple of updates to the browser to make it faster and refine a few of the features. They seem committed to iterating quickly, which is good.

They also have one key advantage over Facebook if they were to build their own browser: Twitter. A Facebook browser undoubtedly would not have the option to share on Twitter. And likewise if Twitter were to build their own browser (don’t laugh, what they’re doing with the new two pane view on the site isn’t that far off from one), it wouldn’t have Facebook as an option. RockMelt, as a neutral third party, can offer both.

Interestingly enough, another entrant that can offer both threw its hat into the ring today, just days after RockMelt: Mozilla. The makers of Firefox just released a Labs project called F1. It’s essentially a social add-on for Firefox that allows you to share what you’re browsing with Facebook and Twitter (and Gmail).

F1 is fairly fast and it looks quite a bit nicer than RockMelt. It’s hidden until you call it, and this helps it feel less tacked-on. It also helps that it’s made by the maker of the browser itself so the design is consistant. RockMelt, again, doesn’t have that. And unless they build their own browser from scratch (something probably unfair to ask, even with Marc Andreessen’s involvement), they’re not going to have that.

Incidentally, Mozilla previously worked with Chris Messina (now at Google) in late 2009 to come up with a new concept for a social browser. This type of from-the-ground-up rethinking of the whole browsing dynamic is exactly what I’m talking about. My gut tells me that this is the only way someone is going to nail the social browser.

RockMelt is on the right track with their thinking that Facebook and Twitter (the two leaders in social sharing) have to be intertwined into the web browsing experience. They just haven’t intertwined them very well just yet. Maybe that will improve. Maybe it won’t.

It’s the closest we’ve come yet to a social browser. But it’s not close enough.

I ended my post a few weeks ago by saying, “I have this feeling that web browsing as we know it is about to change.” I feel like RockMelt is a first step in that direction. I suspect changes to Chrome may be a second step. And a Facebook browser may be the third step. And I think people getting accustomed to new browsing experiences on smartphones and tablets will hasten all of this.