There has been some level of buzz around the new browser, RockMelt, since August 14, 2009, when a New York Times article referenced Marc Andreeson’s complaint that browsers hadn’t kept pace with the development of the web in terms of new capabilities of available applications and complex database-driven sites. The Times quoted Mr. Andreeson as saying, “There are all kinds of things that you would do differently if you are building a browser from scratch”. With such words coming as they did from the developer of early web browsers Mosaic and Netscape, it’s worth pausing to think what that might actually mean. What exactly might one do differently?
One option might be to condense or restructure the menu options from Internet Explorer’s six—File, Edit, View, Favorites, Tools, and Help—which together comprise some 60+ user tasks or activities. It might also be worthwhile to consider how to best incorporate access to information pouring in from a user’s social networks and favored media sources. Finally, one might want to recognize the variety of tasks in which users may be engaged when they’ve turned to a web browser and try to present as flexible an interface as possible in support of that variety. A good browser interface ought to be as nearly invisible to the user as possible, fading into the background as the user works.
Much of what a new user first sees in RockMelt, which is currently in a limited beta, outside of the features mentioned above is a mirror of Google’s Chrome browser, as both are built atop the Chromium open source project code (now up to version 9). If RockMelt’s edges are folded back out of the way, the user is hard-pressed to see much of a difference between the appearance of Chrome and RockMelt. The window tabs are the same as are the browsers’ theme colors (an identical cool blue tone). The control panel for RockMelt is tucked up in the upper-left hand corner of the user’s monitor while the control panel for Chrome is indicated by the wrench icon that appears in that browser’s tool bar area.
The new browser makes an effort to maximize the usability of the available screen display. RockMelt’s innovation is the inclusion of its so-called “Edges,” left and right-hand wings that fold away when not being used to monitor activities of Facebook friends (left-hand side) and monitor the constant flow of information through RSS feeds and functional extensions (right-hand side).
Communication with friends in that left-hand edge is accomplished through clicking on the other person’s avatar. A layered window that pops up conveys written messages to that person’s wall on Facebook or supports chat (although my one or two attempts weren’t successful). What did work was the drag-and-drop option of capturing a particular web page’s URL and dragging the link over to a Facebook colleague’s avatar, thereby triggering a pop-up window that asked whether I wanted to share that link via Facebook Chat, a Facebook Message, or by posting it to that person’s wall.
Status updates for you as the user similarly are handled by clicking on your own avatar, composing the message, and directing the text to go to either Twitter or Facebook. If an RSS feed has been updated, the RockMelt edge to the right of your screen shows that site feed’s icon and a number to indicate how many new stories have been added since your last check-in to the browser. If one of those stories is relevant to a discussion you’ve had with a colleague, click on the “share” balloon in the layered pop-up window and you can direct the article to your colleague again via Facebook’s messaging system.
Those layered window are another example of how the system maximizes screen real estate. Clicking on a news story opens that story in a tab appearing underneath the layered window. Click on all the headlines in which you have an interest, press a button to cause the window to disappear, and the full text is immediately accessible and viewable below. It’s a streamlined mechanism for processing a volume of full text stories.
Across the top of the user’s screen are two boxes, mirroring the Firefox browser’s functionality. One serves as a URL/Address navigational box and the second serves as a search query box. In between those two elements is a “sharing” button, intended to support sharing of either a link or search query results with others through either Facebook or Twitter.
Accessing friends or sites can be handled by going to that search box in the upper right hand corner. Entering the first two letters “p” and “a” caused RockMelt to offer a drop-down menu of suggestions such as Pandora (the music service) as well as my Facebook friend (and incidentally spouse) Patrick. Clicking on Patrick’s name in that menu brings up his activity stream on Facebook as well as an opportunity to see if he might be available to chat about prospective dinner plans via another layered window. A color-coded dot on the person’s avatar indicates their availability for chatting (just as a similar function in Gmail works).
The first ten results from a query run through the search box appear in a layered window with RockMelt efficiently pre-fetching and caching the pages associated with those ten hits. Again, the browser is operating with an eye to maximizing the value of the user’s time in reaching the information sought.
Barriers to adoption of this new browser are twofold. It has no mobile version at a time when analysts are buzzing about the dawn of the mobile computing era. The expectation is that by 2015, more users will access the internet via mobile devices than through desktop computers. Further complicating RockMelt’s future, there are plenty of existing and well-entrenched web browsers for the desktop already—Opera, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and numerous others.
The roll-out of RockMelt through invitations sent to friends on Facebook is a well-thought-out process that would seem to encourage adoption through the network of a user’s social relationships. RockMelt’s servers check to see which of my friends have requested an invite to the beta test. When I have available invites, it tells me which of my friends has requested one through the sign-up on the RockMelt site, and then (with my assent) it sends off an invite to that person indicating that I (as their Facebook friend) am responsible for sending it on to them. It’s a way to expand the viral dissemination of the download link while indicating to those interested that it comes from a trusted party. Every time a friend of mine downloads and uses the browser, RockMelt extends more options to me to invite others within my network. Assuming that the average individual has 150 friends on Facebook’s platform, the controlled dissemination of invitations should support a manageable increase in scalability for RockMelt.
The blogosphere has offered up no scathing rejections of this new browser; most user reviews are indeed quite positive. Where bugs have been identified, RockMelt developers Tim Howe and Eric Vishria have very intelligently acknowledged and/or explained on the organizational blog as well as responding on their Facebook page and to inquiries at their Twitter stream. They claim, “We’ve just scratched the surface of what we want to do.”