Launched in beta today, a new browser called RockMelt connects with Facebook to make it easier for Web users to share news, pictures, searches and more with their friends – all without ever leaving the browser window.
Backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who, as an engineer, became famous for introducing the Netscape browser in the mid-1990s, the RockMelt founders say their new service "re-imagines" a Web user's entire browsing experience.
"We really view this as a browser for modern Web users, folks who kind of live their lives online and spend time communicating with their friends online. They use the Web as a primary way to catch their news, they search really frequently," said Eric Vishria, RockMelt's co-founder and CEO. "It's really for a wide variety of people."
Once you're in the browser, you do not just see the typical search box, you see a vertical strip on the left with your Facebook friends and another on the right with widgets for Facebook, Twitter and other favorite Web applications.
As you search for content, read news stories, watch videos and more, you can share your online experience with friends without leaving the main screen. To send a video link to a friend, for example, you can just click on the video, drag it on top of the friend's picture and then choose to post it on his or her Facebook wall.
"It's the first browser that you log into," Vishria said. "By virtue of logging into the browser, you unlock the entire experience – friends, bookmarks, preferences. …Everything that makes your browser yours."
He also said that since RockMelt is the first browser that's backed by a set of servers in the cloud, a user can log on from home, work or a friend's computer and pick up where he left off the last time he was online.
Another Web browser, called Flock, is also built on Google's open-source Chromium software and also bills itself as a "social" browser. But RockMelt's Vishria says he's confident that they can make greater advances in the social Web browsing space.
"There was Friendster and then there was Facebook – time and execution matter a lot. Time and execution are everything," he said.
Tim Howes, MeltRock's co-founder and CTO, said the company intends to make money through search referrals, as other browsers do, but also hopes to eventually profit from other services, such as commerce and gaming.
"Search is the first service that has been built into the browser in any meaningful way," he said. "But the way we look at it is there are other services that can be built into the browser… And we think there will be an opportunity to monetize those."
In the short-term, however, he said the company is focused on one thing: its race to 1 million users, which it hopes it can achieve in about six months.
Despite the fanfare of today's launch, industry experts say the browser market is a tough nut to crack.
For years, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has led the pack, though Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome have made some inroads.
According to recent Net Applications' data, Internet Explorer had about 59.3 percent of the market in October, while Firefox had 22.9 percent and Chrome about 8.5 percent. Apple's Safari and Opera had 5.3 percent and 2.3 percent respectively.
"Based on conversations over the years with a lot of analysts and browser experts, people are very hesitant to change browsers. That's one of the reasons why Internet Explorer enjoys a majority of users worldwide," said Gregg Keizer, a Computerworld reporter who covers Web browsers, security issues and other related topics. "In large part, because they just don't see a need or don't want to or don't know how to change a browser. They may not even be aware that there are alternatives."
Internet Explorer, which comes bundled with Microsoft software, is the browser of choice for businesses and those who don't want to deal with installing a second browser, he said. It's a fine browser, he said -- but given its massive market share, it's often the first target of cyber criminals.
"The downside for Internet Explorer is that, historically, it's had the most security problems," Keizer said. Microsoft does regularly release patches to keep up with vulnerabilities but security can still be a concern. He also said that it's slower than other browsers but, since speed is measured in milliseconds, it's not something users would often notice as they surf the Web.
For those willing to change things up, Mozilla's Firefox has consistently presented a second solid option.
"That browser, I think, is a really good choice for people who like to customize because it has the largest number of extensions or add-ons that are available," Keizer said, adding that thousands of options exist for Web users who want to add gaming, commerce, social and all kinds of other shortcuts to their browsing experience.
Google's Chrome still has yet to break into the double digits when it comes to market share, but Keizer said it's gaining momentum.
"That's a browser that I think a lot of people are picking up because it's very fast, it's very clean and it has name recognition where Mozilla's Firefox really doesn't among the mainstream," he said.
Safari is bundled with Apple products but it and Opera, another free browser, haven't had much success breaking into the mainstream.
Keizer said the social browser Flock has struggled to attract users, which doesn't necessarily bode well for RockMelt. But he added that Facebook's growth could mean good things for the upstart browser service. Not only are millions of users accustomed to communicating on Facebook, they're getting more and more used to an entire Web experience built around sharing.
"I think it's got a lot of potential," he said. "I don't know how it's going to play out long-term, but with half a billion users-plus on Facebook, there's possibly a market for a browser that specializes in that."