11.07.10

Inside the Secret New Internet Browser

Radically improved online searches, real-time updates of Facebook friends’ walls—RockMelt, which just launched in beta, is an intriguing competitor to Firefox and Chrome. David Kirkpatrick talks to its founder.

A startup called RockMelt on Sunday launched the beta version of an entirely new type of Web browser with an impeccable pedigree. Its primary investor is Marc Andreessen, who helped invent the very concept of Web browsing. RockMelt co-founders Eric Vishria and Tim Howes are his longtime associates at Opsware, a company he earlier founded and sold. RockMelt’s browser works differently from Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari. It is more than just an application on a PC or Mac. For one thing, it presumes users are on Facebook and offers a number of features to simplify the Facebook experience. Integrated with the app is an online service, or what is trendily known as a “cloud.” RockMelt also applies several techniques to update favorite sites faster and to give more thorough search results from Google. In many ways RockMelt acts like an iPad application—self-contained and self-updating, but on a PC. And like most good Internet breakthroughs these days, it’s free.

RockMelt looks like an ordinary browser, except for the little toolbars on the right and left sides. One is called the “friend edge” and is occupied by individual images of the Facebook friends the user cares about most. The other is the “app edge” and contains the websites the user visits most often—The Daily Beast, for example. When you click on a friend or a site in one of these “edges,” you are instantly presented with their latest information: The Beast’s top stories, for instance, or the latest entries on a friend’s Facebook wall. These, like so much in RockMelt, have been continuously updating in the background. When a chum updates his status, a little yellow badge in the edge alerts you.

RockMelt is a strong indication of how deeply integrated social information is becoming online. A tight connection with Facebook and Twitter gives RockMelt a number of useful characteristics. To use it, the user has to log in on Facebook, which offers entry to the entire RockMelt app and cloud service. The browser toolbar contains a little “share” button so you can easily create a tweet or a Facebook update based on the page you are visiting. In addition, anything that’s a link—an article, video, song, or whatever—can be dragged from anywhere right into a Facebook or Twitter feed or sent as a private message to a friend. And in a useful innovation, RockMelt enables the user to see more information right in a feed. On Facebook, you can click on a single photo in a feed and right there browse through an entire album. And tweets in Twitter show up as complete content—you can watch a video right in your feed. Not coincidentally, Andreessen is a board member of Facebook and participated in the very first financing round for Twitter.

A famously too-far-ahead-of-its-time cover story in Wired magazine back in 1997 was devoted to “push”—the idea that information users wanted should just automatically come to them over the Web. We’ve seen that technical approach finally take off 15 years later in mobile apps for iPhone, Android, and iPad. Now RockMelt builds push into many of its features. Aside from those real-time background updates of friends’ walls and website content, it radically improves search. Typically when I do a search now on Google or Bing, I click quickly through the links, creating a new tab for each one—so I can read one while others are downloading. RockMelt automates this process, so Google search results are much more than mere links and a few lines of text. “Today despite all the power in search, the technology remains completely serial,” said Vishria, RockMelt’s CEO. “We wanted to rethink the search experience. All the results are pre-populated behind the scenes, and it’s faster than doing it manually.”

Adding a cloud service to RockMelt means that if you use multiple computers your data travels with you. Logging in recreates your friend and site selections. At present RockMelt doesn’t work on mobile devices like cellphones or tablets, but it will eventually, said Vishria. Though he did give me a demo, I was unable to try the software, but he assured me that as a basic browser RockMelt is state-of-the-art. “The price to play in browsing is safe, fast, and stable,” he says. As for that name? It means nothing, says Vishria. It had the virtue of being available for a mere $12 a year.

Andreessen has twice before been on the cutting edge of browsing. Most important, he co-invented the first browser, called Mosaic, at the University of Illinois in 1993, then went on to co-found Netscape, based on that software. After AOL bought Netscape, he open-sourced the browser code, which eventually became the foundation for Firefox. (RockMelt is built on open-source code—the Chromium software created by Google and used for its own Chrome browser.)

“We wanted to rethink the search experience,” said Eric Vishria, RockMelt’s CEO. “All the results are pre-populated behind the scenes, and it’s faster than doing it manually.”

When I spoke to Andreessen about RockMelt, I told him it all sounded pretty cool. But what, I asked, will keep the browsers that dominate the market today from incorporating this kind of tech? Nothing, he replied, but it doesn’t bother him. “No. 1, you build a fantastic product,” he said. “No. 2, you keep on moving. By the time others imitate this, we will be on to version three, four, and five.”

David Kirkpatrick writes about technology for The Daily Beast. A former Fortune reporter, he is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.