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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Is RockMelt the Browser You've been Waiting For?

Cofounder of the startup reckons users will switch to the new “app-like” browser.

  • November 9, 2010

RockMelt, a brand spanking new, Google Chrome-based web browser backed by some Netscape-era heavyweights, is studded with appealing gew-gaws for interacting with your favorite social networks and websites. Basically, it’s an attempt to solve the one problem that even HTML5 couldn’t rid us of: No matter how good a Web service is, it remains trapped in a tab in your browser.

Web tabs are not the greatest way to consume what are essentially streaming media like Facebook, Twitter and all the others sites we refresh multiple times every day. Worse yet, while the Web allows us to have a consistent experience across browsers, few sites retain detailed state information–Twitter on your phone won’t remember which tweets you’ve already read.

People who are serious about these mediums are forced to rely on clients–apps built for their operating system that interact with the APIs of these services, pulling down data and making it accessible in custom-built environments.

One way to think of RockMelt is as the Swiss Army Knife of Web clients. Sure, it’s a browser, pretty much exactly the same one you’ll get if you download Google’s Chrome. But the real intention of its creators is a transformation of the Web–to make our activities almost as effortless as they would be if they could be accessed with an app instead of a Web page.

In service of that goal, RockMelt uses two strips on either side of the browser window as launch bars for all the services, sites and people with which a user might want to keep up. The best way to understand how it works is to see it in action. Here’s RockMelt’s demo video:

“The way we think about it is that we’re trying to build a browser that pulls functionality out of various sites and puts in more convenient place in browser,” says Tim Howes, who, along with Eric Vishria, co-founded RockMelt in 2008.

The pair decided to build RockMelt on top of Google’s Chrome web browser when it was only 8 weeks old–a bet that Howes says paid off big. “It wasn’t at all obvious that it was the right bet to make at the time, but we’re really happy with it,” says Howes. The decision may mark an end of an era for Firefox, which has become bloated enough that, despite its it’s open-source code base, it no longer appeals to developers who want to build new browsers on top of it.

“Chrome […] just had a more modular architecture, and had thought through the challenges of performance and security better,” says Howes. “It was just much smaller and clearner.”

RockMelt has a few other tricks up its sleeve, such as making search “less like hunting and pecking, and more like flipping through pages in a magazine,” says Howes. In addition, the browser’s sync features remember everything about the user, from who their friends are to which Twitter, Facebook and RSS updates they have read.

Howes believes Rockmelt’s current feature set is “only the beginning” of what the browser could enable in the future, as it adds app-like support for everything from e-commerce to gaming and more advanced communication services.

For the critics who believe that the already-crowded field of web browsers allows little room for a newcomer, Howes points to the success of both FireFox and Chrome–neither of which, to the average user, are all that different from other browsers.

“Over the last three years over 500 million people have switched browsers,” says Howes. “If you give people a better product, they will switch.”

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