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11/8/2010
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RockMelt Offers Social Web Browser

A startup funded by browser pioneer Marc Andreessen is betting that users want a Web browser built for interaction.

The father of the Web browser has started a second browser family. Marc Andreessen, co-author of the Mosaic browser and a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is backing a startup called RockMelt that aims to challenge Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla with a new Web browser, also called RockMelt.

"RockMelt is onto something huge," said Andreessen, general partner in venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, in a statement. "They've rethought the browser around the massive shifts in user behavior that will drive the Web over the next decade. RockMelt is the freshest, most innovative take on browsing since browsers were created."

RockMelt's freshness and innovation don't come from its technical underpinnings: It is based on the open source Chromium project from which Google's Chrome Web browser comes. Chromium in turn relies on the open source WebKit layout engine, to which Apple has contributed significantly. So it's rather a known quantity from an architectural standpoint.

Where it differs in its approach is its focus. RockMelt integrates a variety of social tools in an effort to redefine browsing as a social experience. It presents a list of one's Facebook friends alongside the window used for rendering Web pages, and also displays frequently used social applications in an adjacent browser pane. The idea is to make it easier to communicate with friends, post to social sites, and navigate search results.

RockMelt will earn revenue from search engines for referring search traffic, mirroring the model used by Firefox.

It may also have the opportunity to profit from the data it handles, because the RockMelt browser comes with cloud-based back-end to store bookmarks and related data, in order to make that data available from anywhere the user logs on.

"Wherever you go on the Internet, RockMelt makes the Web a personal experience," explains RockMelt’s co-founder and CTO Tim Howes in a blog post. "Because RockMelt is the first browser you log into, it unlocks your Web experience with your Facebook friends, your feeds, your favorite services, even your bookmarks and preferences. RockMelt is also the first browser to be fully backed by the cloud."

RockMelt however is not the first attempt to reimagine the Web browser as a social tool. The Flock Web browser was released in 2005 with similar ambitions. Initially based on Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine, the forthcoming 3.0 version of Flock will, like RockMelt, be based on Chromium.

After five years, Flock has achieved a global market share of 0.05% in October, according to NetApplications, behind Microsoft Internet Explorer (59.18%), Mozilla Firefox (22.83%), Google Chrome (8.5%), Apple Safari (5.83%), Opera (2.29%), and a few others.

If the limited extent of Flock's success offers any hints about RockMelt's prospects, RockMelt will face considerable challenges in its quest to build a user base that's large enough to matter.

SEE ALSO: VC Firm Andreessen Horowitz Raises $650 Million

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