A Moment in the Sun Will Evaporate RockMelt

A Profoundly Overhyped New Web Browser Will Suffer the Same Fate as Cuil

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David Berkowitz
David Berkowitz
RockMelt is a fitting name for the new web browser that is rolling out this week. It will be hard to get anyone to use it, and the hype will disappear overnight. I haven't seen such an apt moniker for a product since I watched the show "Bored to Death."

The browser already racked up $9.9 million in funding, with much of that coming from the firm of Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen. Built using Google's Chromium and thus fully interoperable with Google's Chrome browser extensions, RockMelt feels like what would happen if Facebook launched a web browser. Users can easily access their friends' Facebook posts, along with Twitter updates, blog posts and other social content, directly from the frame of the browser. It's heavily built around Facebook though, as users must enter their Facebook login to get on the wait list for access to the browser, and in the process one must give various permissions to RockMelt.

If you watch the preview video at RockMelt.com, you'll find three benefits touted:

  1. You can access Facebook updates from the browser. Not surprisingly, they don't mention you could do that from your browser already with add-ons such as a Chrome extension with nearly 300,000 users. There are several Facebook-related add-ons for Firefox with tens of thousands of weekly downloads. Okay, so the extensions and add-ons didn't become trending topics on Twitter (as RockMelt did Monday), but they've served a need without making people change their browsers.
  2. You can search right from the browser. The Google-powered results appear over the page you're viewing, so you never have to go to the search engine. The downside is it strips much of Google's usefulness from the listings. For instance, when searching for "taco bell" from RockMelt's search bar, all four of the top listings say they go directly to www.tacobell.com, so you can't tell which page they land on. There are no universal search results, like real-time updates or news articles. Most importantly for marketers, the ads are missing, which doesn't help anyone, including consumers who will find the search results resembling what they looked like around 1999. A few improvements have been made since then.
  3. You can send links to your friends directly from the browser. A number of your friends' faces who are available for chat appear persistently to the left of the screen. You can quickly chat with any of your friends or post on their walls. If you're chatting and posting that much on other people's walls, you're likely either under age 22 or you're annoying most of your friends – maybe both. For such users, perhaps RockMelt serves a purpose.
The demo video did turn me on to one innovation: turtle racing. Supposedly a RockMelt developer lives above a bar that offers such a sport, which may or may not involve the losing participants appearing on the menu later in the evening. Based on my initial impressions trying out RockMelt, there will soon be far more bars racing turtles during happy hour than there will be people using this browser.

When Google released Chrome, it didn't do it overnight. Its CEO Eric Schmidt told The Wall Street Journal that "Google was a small company" when he first considered the idea. It wasn't until late 2008 that Chrome was released and quickly became a good enough product to compete with Firefox and Internet Explorer – so good that others like RockMelt built on its platform. Google had some appreciation that it was a lot to ask of users to download another browser, as that requires a major change of behavior. The benefits need to be clear, as Firefox demonstrated with customization and Chrome demonstrated with speed.

RockMelt's primary value proposition of making browsing more social has already been done better. There are easier ways to give people access to their social graph from their existing browsers, as noted above. Beyond the plug-ins, there are approaches from toolbars that hover above or below the browser window, such as those available from GetGlue and Kikin. Kikin in particular mimics a lot of RockMelt's functionality, with added layers such as a twist on social search. For instance, when I use Kikin in Chrome and go to Google to search for "rockmelt," with one click I can see posts about RockMelt from everyone I follow on Twitter or Facebook, and then respond to any of my friends there.

Kikin presents me with something I couldn't do before, and it takes the same minimal effort as installing an extension. RockMelt offers a lot less while requiring much more work up front. I don't care what the Twitter trending topic is today, as that doesn't tell you what people will still be talking about and using tomorrow.

David Berkowitz is senior director of emerging media and innovation, 360i.
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