RockMelt isn’t all that hot

I somehow missed the hype machine for the new social browser, RockMelt.  So, when @LastPass tweeted that it worked with RockMelt, my ears perked up.  RockMelt? WTF is that?

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.

everything’s better in the cloud

image source: gawker
image source: gawker

since google’s big chromeOS unveiling last week, i’ve been left thinking a lot about cloud computing and chrome as an operating system in particular.  while i failed to be enamored about chromeOS, i do think the concept of cloud computing is an exciting developing technology.  chromeOS felt half-assed and not-fully-developed (the latter of which, at least, was true).  and it’s banking on a technology that is not yet widely adopted for which there aren’t a lot of equivalent technologies to what we are used to on our desktops and standard laptops.

the idea behind cloud computing (and the concept that chromeOS is founded on) is that most of what we do these days is done online, and that our most used applications are things that really just interface with the net.  even things that we think of as applications that run locally of our computer — like word processing or spreadsheets — can be taken to the cloud with microsoft’s new Office Live which was introduced to rival google’s own, longstanding Google Apps.  the few things you sacrifice by using a more simplistic user interface with less options (theoretically the stuff you don’t use anyway), you make up for in having permanent, secure, online data storage that follows you wherever you go, no matter what computer you’re on.  it doesn’t matter if your computer crashes, or your whole office crashes — if all your documents are online in Office Live or Google Apps, they’re safely tucked away in microsoft’s or google’s data warehouses.  and the chances of google’s or microsoft’s servers going down are about as high as snowflakes in the mojave desert in august. nvidia’s RealityServer and the independent OnLive show us ways that gaming can be taken to the cloud — and that is a glorious thing.  imagine not ever having to buy a graphics card ever again, and yet, still be able to play the hottest new games available at breathtaking resolutions that would have you staring at your screen in awe.  by taking all the heavy duty graphics and physics processing off your computer and crunching the numbers on a vast server cluster, the only thing you’d need is a fast enough internet connection to stream the audio and video.

cloud2it’s true, it’s beautiful up in the cloud.  the heavenly connotations are not entirely unwarranted when given access to unlimited data storage, unlimited processing power, unlimited games, unlimited music, everything you do and say and think lives in the cloud, you just need a conduit to tap into it.  all this constant upgrading your computer to the latest fancy technology to make it go faster is unnecessary.  you can access the cloud on the laptop you threw in the closet 7 years ago and forgot about. but wait…what about everything we’ve ever known about computing technology?  about how processors are constantly getting faster, data storage is getting bigger and faster and cheaper.  if you can access the cloud with any old thing, namely, if you can access the cloud with a chromeOS-powered netbook that does nothing else other than access the cloud, wouldn’t that sort of put a wrench in how hardware is developed, and do we even want that? because with cloud computing, nothing is local, all (or most) of the processing is done in the cloud.  at least, that was what google was presenting a few days ago.  you don’t need a fast computer, you just need something that can run their software.  (and google kind of has the corner on that market: one of the things they announced was that you would be running chromeOS on a specially-designed hardware device built to run chromeOS.)

a netbook is either a bloated smartphone that can’t make calls, or a dumbed-down computer with limited local storage.

this is where i get stuck.  it doesn’t make sense to me: why use a netbook to access stuff that only lives on the internet if it can’t do some of the things i can do on a regular computer?  okay, so it’s only task is to access and manipulate apps that live online, but so does a smartphone.  a netbook is, pretty much by definition, either a bloated smartphone that can’t make calls, or a dumbed-down computer with limited (or no) local storage.  this is the future of computing?  really?

the cloud also throws a wrench into our concept of ownership.  i mean, sure, i can say that i own all my documents on Google Docs, but what does that actually mean to me if i don’t actually have a file i can manipulate myself.  or, more to the point, what happens to the music collection i consider to be mine if it’s not actually stored on any hard drive i have physical access or proximity to, but rather, is part of a membership service i am subscribed to?  we saw this summer how easy it was to take away digital possessions thought to be the property of the purchasers when amazon pulled 1984 and animal farm off their (digital) Kindle shelves and, subsequently, out of the Kindle users’ collections.

aw_snapthe cloud is great at some things, but not so much at others.  netbooks are a hot, cheap solution to do some basic daily tasks, but they will never be able to do everything you can do on a regular computer.  rather than forcing users to settle on a good enough, cloud equivalent for what they want to do, let’s embrace the differences between netbook computing and desktop (or laptop) computing.  what i’m thinking is web apps that behave more like desktop apps and desktop apps that behave more like web apps.  so much so that the only distinction between the two is whether an app is web-exclusive and therefore can be run on a netbook with no local storage.  as an example, let’s say i’m using something like a video editing program that eats up a lot of memory, disk space, and cpu cycles.  rather than having to go out and buy a supercomputer that can handle the load, let’s offload some of the memory consumption, processing, and temporary data storage to the cloud.  the app still lives on my computer, i still have to go to the store and make the purchase (or download it online and install it on my computer), but it leverages the cloud to enhance the user experience.  my video editing app can use a server cluster in mountain view to handle the video rendering so that task can take minutes, or even seconds, rather than the hours it would take me to render the same video on my computer.  then i’m limited only by my bandwidth, which is pretty much universally accepted as necessary to make cloud computing — and the environment in which chromeOS can truly live — a reality.

is chromeOS really anything more than a cheap ploy to generate more ad revenue?

granted, google told us that this was not a release, not a true unveiling.  merely, it was a chance to look at what the operating system does and how it’s different than what we’re used to now.  but, if you’ve read the chrome browser propaganda, none of this is really new territory other than the fact that, in the future, there will be chrome devices that only run chrome.  with chromeOS, google is banking on a technology whose time hasn’t yet come, and it’s a hefty gamble.  and are google’s intentions purely benevolent?  if google is working towards bringing about a world in which computing is done entirely (or at least mostly) online, gee, doesn’t that mean there will be more opportunities for their text ads to appear while we go about our normal workday?  is this really anything other than a cheap ploy to plaster more google ads across more things you do, by bringing the things you do online?

when applications can intelligently use the cloud to boost performance and take the load off of the local host computer — as i see it, the best of both worlds — then i will be a true believer.  until then, google’s cloud lives in that same utopian dream that the Agents in The Matrix told us failed the first time they built the Matrix.  we kept trying to wake up.