Does the world need yet another browser? It depends. If you're like me, and spend a lot of time on the Web, but not too much time with social networking sites, you don't. Firefox and Chrome and even IE (not to mention Safari or Opera) are more than enough. But if you can't live without instant Facebook updates and the latest Tweets, you should check out RockMelt, a new browser designed for the social networking aficionado.
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RockMelt looks a lot like Google's Chrome, and that's no coincidence. It's built on top of Chromium, the open source code base of Chrome. But as soon as you've set up RockMelt, you'll see some major differences.
When you first install RockMelt, the browser asks permission to access your Facebook settings, and it connects to the popular social media site every time you start it up.
The left side of the browser, which the RockMelt folks call an edge, is filled with pictures of your Facebook buddies. Click on a picture and you'll find out if the person is available to chat, and see their most recent Facebook actions.
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The far side, called the app edge, has, not surprisingly, a list of apps. At the moment, it's rather short, consisting of Facebook, Twitter and your RSS feeds, although the company says there no reason it can't add additional services in the future. Each app icon displays a number that corresponds to new actions, updates, tweets or feeds you might want to look at.
When you open the Twitter app you can detach it as a free floating window that will stay open even if you close RockMelt and use it to read the recent tweets of everyone you follow. You tweet by clicking on your own Facebook icon in the upper left corner of the browser Window. All in all, it's quicker and easier than going back and forth to your Twitter home page.
RockMelt is still a work in progress. It was released as a quasi-public beta last week, which means you need to get in line to download it and give it a spin. Like most beta software, it's a bit buggy and some of the features aren't altogether functional. Co-founder and CEO Eric Vishria says RockMelt is "months away" from general availability and acknowledges that "there are a million and one things we still need to tweak."
Bugs aside, RockMelt works rather well. Like close cousin Chrome, it's tabbed, runs fast and displays an image of recently viewed Web pages. Unlike Chrome, it has separate fields for URLs and searches. It was able to import my Firefox bookmarks with no problems, and browsing with it was pretty much like browsing with any other browser.
It would be simplistic to call RockMelt a front end for Facebook, but its integration with Facebook is really the heart of the matter. Indeed, if you don't have a Facebook account, you can't run RockMelt.
What about privacy?
Given Facebook's penchant for stepping on the toes of its users by carelessly exposing private information, it's not surprising that Vishria had a ready answer to my questions about privacy. RockMelt, he says, doesn't share user information with other companies and an ad network is not part of its business plan. "We want our incentives to be aligned with those of our users. If you start running an ad network, incentives start to get misaligned," added co-founder and CTO Tim Howes.
It would be useful, no to mention smart marketing, if RockMelt included a control panel or other device to manage privacy setting across all of your social media.
How the company will make money isn't clear. But Vishria envisions RockMelt eventually generating revenue by including new services such as gaming and ecommerce.
Neither man is shy about the potential of their product. "If we don't become people's default browser, we'll have failed," said Howes.
That's a tall order. But you've got to admire their drive and ambition, and if social networking is a big part of your life, you might well admire their product.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at email@example.com.