RockMelt is a new kind of browser, or so the introductory video told me, one that combines your social web with your browsing experience. We’ve met such browsers before; Flock was supposed to make your browsing experience easier and more social, too and everybody’s switched browsers to Flock now, right? Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Still, I was interested in how the sidebars interacted dynamically with what you were looking at. And I’m always fancy-new-gadgets-yay, so I signed up for the beta last night. Aaaand I got my invite this morning.
Let me get one thing out there: I’m not attached at the hip to Facebook. In fact, generally, I could care less. The only reason I go there at all is because I have so many people I actually know there with whom I probably would never interact with otherwise. People I went to college or high school or worked with who I actually like. But I’ve got more important things to do with my time than wait for the latest update from someone’s FarmVille game, let alone play it myself. On the other hand, I’m active on Twitter. I manage 3 separate accounts (though one is mostly on autopilot) and I, at least occasionally, have the sorts of 140-character conversations that people have on Twitter. A look at my about page will tell you I’m also connected to a lot of other sites, too, some of which I use daily (like Glue and Empire Avenue), some of which I check in maybe once a month or so (like Goodreads), and some of which I rarely, if ever, visit (like Foursquare). At the same time, I’ve turned off all pop-up notifications from everything because I found, ultimately, that it’s incredibly distracting and I can get a lot more work done when I don’t have a little message popping up in the corner of my screen every 5 minutes.
From the video preview, I could tell that RockMelt was using WebKit. Just glancing at the tabs told me that, which look exactly like Chrome‘s tabs (really? you couldn’t do something different?). After downloading the beta and running the install, it told me that, in order to import my settings from Chrome, I needed to close it first. So I did. It asked me to log into Facebook. So I did. Then it gave me a window that looked exactly like Chrome, but with two sidebars. The one on the left showing my Facebook contacts, and the one on the right showing my updates from Facebook and (after I logged in) Twitter. Here’s the thing about Facebook: you know how I just said that I actually use it to keep in touch with people I like? Well, with a few exceptions, I can generally count those people on one hand. So, seeing a list of all my online Facebook contacts really doesn’t help me that much. Now, you can “favorite” your contacts, and switch over to list your favorites rather than your online contacts, but when my favorites (at least in terms of chatting online) number exactly two, that’s not that helpful, really. What would be better is if it integrated into more social networks. Anyone hear of Google? It wouldn’t be hard to integrate a Google Chat into the browser that also brought up the same sorts of information and sharing opportunities you get from the Facebook integration. And since I (and the rest of the known universe) use Google on a daily basis, this would be much more helpful than my Facebook contacts. And what about other, similar networks that use an open standard, like Identi.ca and Diaspora? Having this sort of feature embedded in your browser really needs to have the ability to tune it to your own usage with your own networks, rather than just assuming everybody is using — and wants to integrate into their regular browsing experience — Facebook.
On the right side, as I said, there’s updates from Facebook and Twitter. What’s actually interesting here, though, is that if you’re on a site that has an RSS feed, a little green button lights up that tells you that you can add that to your sidebar and get notifications from that site. With all the hub-bub about how RSS is dead (hint: it’s not), this is a great way of integrating RSS into your daily browsing experience in a way that is easy for the non-geeks to pick up on intuitively. This would be especially useful for adding news sites and getting a list of the latest headlines, or just adding your favorite blogs and using it like an RSS reader.
Beyond that, though, it’s really just Chrome that’s been taught a few cool tricks. Tricks that, I’m sure, could easily have been developed as standalone extensions within Chrome rather than building an entirely new browser for them. (Of course, when I re-opened Chrome after RockMelt’s “import”, I was appalled to see that all of my tabs were gone and it was displaying some web page on my hard drive that didn’t exist. Luckily, although my history was funky and all my Bookmarks were showing up as recently opened pages, I was able to scroll through my history and find most of my previously-open tabs.) If I had the choice, I’d take the RSS integration and ditch everything else. That said, I’m not really the target market for this browser. I’m a geek and I like doing things myself and in my own way. The billions of users of Facebook that make up the majority would probably be excited to have a way to merge Facebook into the rest of the web. I’m just not one of those people. I can see how there could be quite a market for this browser, but only if said market is using the web in exactly the way they intended it to be used. This has always been the downfall of applications that try to blend all your social networks into one app: it’s great in theory, but in practice, they’re always lacking at least one network (if not multiple) which makes it less appealing to use it as an all-in-one. In my opinion, the current model of browser development is a good one: the browser is for browsing web sites, any other features can be added through plugins or extensions. Coding extra features like social network integration into the browser core only makes it heavier, potentially slower, and ends up limiting the user’s browsing experience rather than adding to it. On the other hand, browser developers should build easy ways to keep up on news feeds and blog updates in an intuitive and visual way, which is something that — I’m not the first to say — has been lacking in modern web browsers.
In conclusion, RockMelt is great if you’re already glued to Facebook, and less so if you’re not. If that does describe you and you want to check it out, let me know — I have some invites available I can send your way.