Web

A New 'Facebook Browser' Faces an Uncertain Future

Rockmelt is beautifully designed, but a review shows that it could get squeezed by Facebook and Google.

A browser isn’t just a tool for looking at websites. It has the power to shape the experience of being online. A new browser, Rockmelt, is built to show the Web through the prism of your online contacts. Social features literally frame every page the user views, meaning that every page view is surrounded by tools that let users share it with social networks, see which friends are online, and get updates from social networks.

The browser launched in preview form this week and garnered a slew of attention, in part because of the Netscape pedigree of its backers. It’s nicely designed, and it succeeds at making it easy to connect with people while browsing. However, Rockmelt relies heavily on existing products from Facebook and Google. This could leave it vulnerable if either of those companies decides to move in on its territory.

Rockmelt has good ideas behind it, but none of them seem to be entirely its own. The software is essentially a Facebook application built on top of the open-source version of Google’s Chrome browser. As such, it has all the beneficial features of Chrome—it is fast, handles multiple tabs well, and is well-suited to running Web applications in the browser.

To get started using Rockmelt, you first need to sign in to Facebook. This allows the browser to pull in your list of Facebook friends (which appears on the left edge of the screen), and lets users post to Facebook at any time and easily share pages on Facebook.

The integration with Facebook is, for the most part, smooth and intuitive. A “share” button placed prominently between the URL bar and search bar lets a user comment on and post a link to Facebook. If the user also adds a Twitter account to Rockmelt, that button can share content through that site as well.

Other features are a little more confusing. For example, Rockmelt tracks friends in its left “edge.” The view of online friends works well: you can quickly pull up profile information on the people who appear there, send them messages, or start a chat through Facebook. However, it also has a “favorite friends” view, which is harder to use. Friends have to be selected manually from a list of all friends, and they seem to appear in that panel in the order they were selected, rather than being shuffled alphabetically or based on who is online.

It’s also possible to confuse the browser about whether you’re logged in to Facebook. I found that logging in and out of the website sometimes disrupted the functioning of Rockmelt’s social features.

Constant sharing: Rockmelt’s interface makes it easy to post to Facebook no matter what site a user is visiting. Clicking the share button, above, which is prominently posted next to the URL bar, will quickly publish information to a user’s social network.

On the right side of the screen, Rockmelt has an “apps edge” that provides updates from Facebook, Twitter, and other sites that users select. It’s nice to have this information pushed to the screen—the designers have done a good job of making it clear that there are new updates without allowing them to become invasive.

Facebook, however, is the clear first-class citizen, and all other sites are secondary. I found that updates from Facebook appeared almost instantly, while updates from my Twitter accounts and other feeds were sluggish or nonexistent.

This points to the central fact about Rockmelt. It’s not a generic “social browser.” It’s a Facebook browser. Many products have promised to manage all of a user’s social accounts from one place. Rockmelt doesn’t seem to aspire to that, and this is good. Dealing with too many social accounts can get clunky. Rockmelt instead turns the browser into a smooth social connector for the Web.

This design strength, however, could leave it vulnerable. Facebook has already said it wants to weave its features into the fabric of pages across the Web, and it has technology in place to do it. In fact, Rockmelt relies on this very infrastructure, provided by Facebook, for its social integration.

If good Facebook integration already exists on the pages a user visits, Rockmelt might seem like an unnecessary addition. For example, Skype recently added a Facebook tab within its own software that lets users see news from Facebook contacts and facilitates getting in touch with them through the Internet calling service. Facebook is also cozy with Microsoft, which invested $240 million in the company in 2007, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of Facebook’s social features eventually get baked into Internet Explorer.

On the other side of Rockmelt’s balancing act is Google. Rockmelt’s chat feature, for example, is attractive, but Google might be able to see the challenge and raise it. Within Gmail, Google has already shown itself to be adept at putting together a variety of good communication options. Google could easily add its own chat application to Chrome, for example, if it wanted to start its own push for social features.

Even if Rockmelt successfully fends off challenges from these two giants and manages to establish a strong following for itself, it’s unclear how the company could make money from the browser. Sure, Mozilla, which produces the Firefox browser, makes money, but it relies heavily on Google, which pays to be the default search engine in Firefox. Rockmelt probably would have to find a different revenue stream.

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